For What It’s Worth
When journalists go about choosing a squad for the world cup – and just about all of them have done it – there’s a distinction between those who try to pre-empt Declan Kidney’s announcement by picking the ‘right’ squad i.e. the squad that will go to the world cup, and those who pick ‘their’ squad, i.e. the squad that they would choose were they manager.
It’s a phenomenon that is familiar to rugby fans all over the world. While a lot of commentators looking to make a point say that ‘rugby is a simple game’, it’s not. Rugby is a complicated game, and there are both extremely specific positions [for example hooker and scrum-half, which normally gobble up six squad places between them] and very versatile players – in the Irish squad alone, you could put forward Sean O’Brien, who has started games in every position in the backrow this season, or Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald, who have started for Ireland in four different positions in the backline over the last three years.
When you throw in other known unknowns – thank you Donald Rumsfeld – like form, fitness under duress and untried partnerships, it becomes even more complicated; and this is still just the selection process, never mind the actual games.
Twitter Me This, Then
All sorts of predictions are emerging from the tea-leaves this morning: some reputable journalists are predicting that Tomás O’Leary’s woeful performance on Saturday has meant a late cull in selection, while others have gone on record that his likely replacement, Munster team-mate Conor Murray, has already been told he won’t be in the squad.
Likewise some have it that Geordan Murphy is going to New Zealand because of Felix Jones’ late injury, while others are putting forward that Keith Earls and Luke Fitz will be expected to cover Rob Kearney’s 15 jersey in case of emergency. Whatever the case, Ireland’s first patchy and then poor performances in their international warm-ups to date have made things uncomfortable for Declan Kidney.
Good News from Ward G
Despite Jones’ injury, Ireland’s medical news has been largely positive. Jerry Flannery, who hardly played for two seasons due to injury and suspension, has come through three substitute appearances unscathed and in good form. He has really hit the ground running, which is a welcome surprise for somebody who has missed so much rugby and has suffered chronic leg injuries that threatened to end his career.
Robert Kearney, missing since last November, has shown precious few signs of rustiness, and indeed performed better in his start against France in Bordeaux than Jones did at the weekend in Dublin, despite the latter’s hot run of form to end last season. Steven Ferris, out since February, made his first appearance off the bench and looked big, hungry and powerful. Gordon D’Arcy has made his return from surgery a week earlier than expected, and if his performance against France wasn’t all that sharp, it wasn’t a poor outing from a guy who has missed most of the summer training camp.
On the other hand, two Test Lions in Tommy Bowe and David Wallace have not as yet seen any game time, seemingly due to niggling injuries that have taken longer than expected to clear up. Bowe is Ireland’s most potent attacker in the threequarters, a powerful, natural runner who hits great lines and knows how to use space well, and Wallace is a proven performer on the openside who hasn’t missed a Six Nations game in six seasons. Ireland will be a better team when they return.
In the meantime, it’s down to the dirty business of picking a squad.
C. Healy [Leinster]; M. Ross [Leinster]; T. Court [Ulster]; T. Buckley [Sale]
For the second world cup in a row, Ireland is threadbare at prop. In RWC07, the Munster partnership of Marcus Horan and John Hayes were backed up by the Ulster pair of Bryan Young and Simon Best. This year, the Leinster pair of Healy and Ross will be backed up by Tony Buckley and Tom Court, both of whom are massive men – Buckley breaking the scales at 196cm [6’5”] and 130kg [20st6lbs] and Court not too far behind him at 191cm [6’3”] and 122kg [19st2lbs] – but neither of whom can play both loosehead and tighthead adequately at international level. In fairness, very few props can, but both of these behemoths regularly struggle on their nominal sides as well.
International level is the last bastion of professional rugby to hold with the 22-man matchday squad, the New Zealand ITN cup having adopted 23-man squads earlier this year. With the IRB apparently immovable for the moment on the smaller squad for internationals, a prop who can cover both sides still has an important part to play. However, with the Pro 12 and the Heineken Cup using the larger squad, the requirement for props to play both sides has more or less disappeared: it’s a bit of a conundrum to figure out where international-class props are going to get the opportunity to flex their scrummaging muscles on both sides, but that’s an argument for another day.
R. Best [Ulster]; J. Flannery [Munster]; S. Cronin [Leinster]
These hookers pick themselves. Rory Best redeemed his poor performance from touch in Bordeaux with a nigh-flawless display of arrow-mastery [pretty much perfect from the oche] in Dublin on Saturday. As mentioned above, Jerry Flannery is right back in business, and will have a serious part to play in the world cup – he could well squeeze ahead of the Ulsterman for starts, going on how they perform in New Zealand. Sean Cronin has been overhyped to date, and his international performances have shown a good few holes in his game. He needs to become much more aggressive at the breakdown and start chopping people down low in the tackle, because he’s not a big man by the standards of John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Steve Thompson. Still, the lad has some potential and you can’t teach pace.
Second Row 
P. O’Connell [Munster]; D. O’Callaghan [Munster]; L. Cullen [Leinster]; D. Ryan [Munster]
Donnacha Ryan gets the fourth spot ahead of Connacht’s Mike McCarthy, who was afforded a mere five minutes against France at the weekend to make his case. O’Connell is a huge player for Ireland, as was seen when he came on for Cullen in Bordeaux, and while it’s hard to point out exactly where Donncha O’Callaghan outperforms Leo Cullen, Kidney has given the Munsterman twenty-six starts and the Leinsterman a mere five during his tenure as international coach.
Cullen will have an important role to play in the squad, and one would hope that the coach uses both men in matches to get the best from them, rather than give one of them seventy five minutes and the other five. When you write it down like that, you see how little sense such a policy makes.
J. Heaslip [Leinster]; S. O’Brien [Leinster]; D. Wallace [Munster]; S. Ferris [Ulster]; D. Leamy [Munster]
The unfortunate Shane Jennings was given a late chance to contest for his inclusion in the squad following surgery for the broken arm he sustained in the Magner’s League Grand Final, but he failed to grab it, and all eventualities point to Ireland once again travelling to a world cup laden down with blindsides. Jamie Heaslip is bolted on at No8, and while David Wallace hasn’t yet made an appearance in the warm-up games, he has been a permanent fixture in Kidney’s matchday selections: rightly so. Sean O’Brien will most likely start at blindside, with Ferris coming on relatively early in the second half and O’Brien switching to open to replace Wallace. Denis Leamy provides backup at No6 and No8, and in a worst-case scenario Donncha Ryan can slot in on the blindside as well. Sweet – five blindsides. When did we last see that?
E. Reddan [Leinster]; C. Murray [Munster]; T. O’Leary [Munster]
I will be pleasantly surprised if Declan Kidney opts for Isaac Boss over Tomás O’Leary. It could still happen – O’Leary had a horror against France at the weekend, and while it was a particularly bad performance, it’s not like it was [to quote Philip Browne] a “blip”: he has had a very poor season overall, slipping well down the ranks in Munster. Boss racked up huge gametime for Leinster, is a physical, combative player who would be on home soil in New Zealand and frankly deserves the spot on form. It would be a huge mistake not to bring Conor Murray, who could well start a long run at scrum-half for Ireland in this tournament. He brings the most rounded game of any scrum-half in Ireland to the table, and is young, strong and sensible. Reddan should nonetheless start until somebody dislodges him through performance.
J. Sexton [Leinster]; R. O’Gara [Munster]
The outhalf battle is far from over. Whatever about club level, Ronan O’Gara still looks more assured than Jonny Sexton on international pitches. He’s got big holes in his game that are known around the world and, for a guy with 110 caps and a long, long list of records to his name, has never performed particularly well on tour – his world cup in 2007 was appalling [not alone in that], and while he has made three Lions tours, he has never made a starting test selection.
With that said, Sexton has failed to play consistently well in an Ireland jersey, and his form in the two warm-up matches to date has been no better than average. Hopefully he can start to impose himself at international level as he does at Leinster and, more pointedly, hopefully Declan Kidney stops picking O’Leary inside him. Ireland’s best performance of the last two seasons came with Reddan at scrum-half and Sexton at outhalf versus England in the last game of the 2011 Six Nations – why not just stick with this combination?
B. O’Driscoll [Leinster]; G. D’Arcy [Leinster]; P.Wallace [Ulster]
Centre has become the land of the giants in the era of Sonny-Bill Williams, Aurelian Rougerie, Yannick Jauzion, Jamie Roberts, Matthieu Bastareaud, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villers, all physically big men who bring gain-line busts and offloads to the table.
Ireland have long gone a different route, but are they in danger of becoming outdated? It’s a bit ridiculous to jump on that particular bandwagon when both D’Arcy and O’Driscoll are only making their first starts of the season, and couple to that, their return from injury. What isn’t at all out of place is to say that Ireland need a serious breaking threat in midfield: shovelling the ball across to the wings without committing any defenders isn’t going to worry any top defences.
O’Driscoll is the biggest of big-game players, and I have little worries on his account. Gordon D’Arcy, on the other hand, needs to throw off the shackles at inside centre and just have a go. In common with O’Gara, he’s never really performed well on tour, despite being an extravagantly gifted player. Hopefully the time off will have recharged his batteries somewhat and we see some quick feet and leg drive – he had a great game in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse, and both Australia and Italy will field poor tacklers at outhalf. D’Arcy needs to exploit these weaknesses, get defences thinking about them and then hopefully space will open up further out.
Paddy Wallace can cover 10 & 12: that’s why he’s going. People can moan about it all they want, but if any other player in the country could do the job that he does, he’d have competition for his spot. They don’t and he doesn’t. Both Leinster, with Felipe Contepomi, and Munster, with Paul Warrick, have used Johnny Foreigners in this role in the past with success, and it’s mostly fans of these sides who are bleating about Wallace’s inclusion. The ironing is delicious.
T. Bowe [Ospreys]; A. Trimble [Ulster]; K. Earls [Munster]; L.Fitzgerald [Leinster]
Tommy Bowe hasn’t yet played a match, but his inclusion is a given – on his day, amongst the very best wingers in the world, and he doesn’t have too many off-days anymore. Andrew Trimble’s performances in the warm-ups have been uniformly excellent, and he provides hard-running with ball in hand, hard-chasing without and hard-hitting with either. He has been the success story of the three-quarters from the warm-up matches
Luke Fitzgerald is coming off a brutal season, but looks to be coming back into some form and might have shown enough in his substitutes appearance against France in Dublin to convince Kidney that he’s the man for the job. Keith Earls had a sharp Six Nations, but an absolutely miserable game against France. Hopefully he can stick his chin back out and come out hard against England, where he’ll surely get the chance to redeem himself. Like Cronin, a fair few holes in his game have been exposed at international level, but he can’t afford to go into his shell.
R. Kearney [Leinster]; G. Murphy [Leicester]
Murphy might have thought that this one was gone from him with Felix Jones’ inclusion in the starting XV against France, but one man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity. The Leicester fullback had a pretty sharp game against Connacht – albeit one where he was never really tested defensively – a brings a great deal of skill, experience and calmness to the side. It’s certainly not beyond him to shine if he gets the chance. Just don’t ask him to tackle.
Rob Kearney, just back from injury, looks like he never went away. A huge amount of guff has been written about how Kearney is a “catch and kick” fullback, mostly by people who seemingly forget every try he scores or line-break he makes. Kearney has done it at the very highest level, from test for Ireland in New Zealand and Australia to the Lions in South Africa. He is a class act, and if his time away from the game has given him the realisation that passing isn’t a crime, all the better.
There you go then: a 16/14 split, not bringing below-par props when we can bring Lions and high-performers in the back three. I’d be surprised if the final squad is different than that listed above , but all will be revealed at 1pm today.