The biggest question facing Declan Kidney and the Irish coaching staff as they look towards to the match against the Italian team is who they’re going to select in the No12 jersey.
There’s no shortage of contenders for the jersey. The obvious candidate is Gordon D’Arcy, but the one time Clongowes schoolboy legend and hero of the 2004 and 2007 Six Nations is suffering injury after injury after injury – ankle surgery, calf strain and hamstring strain in the last three months alone. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll start any quarter-final we find ourselves in, especially if it’s against the big boppers of the Welsh midfield, Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies. However, whether that’s best accomplished by trying to get him on the park against Italy or taking a slight risk and leaving him out to recuperate is something that only the management and medical staff really know.
Paddy Wallace started the game against Russia at 12, and is a Kidney favourite. Readers of the Mole will know that he’s no Wallace-basher – he’s both a talented footballer and a gutsy lad. The big knock against him is that he’s guilty of making bad decisions in end-game situations: giving away a penalty against Wales in 2009 and not giving away a pass against them in 2011. The solution? Don’t have him on the pitch against Wales at the end of the game!
A more adventurous choice would see Jonny Sexton at second five-eighth outside Gamblor. While he has never started a game for Ireland in the No12 jersey, Sexton has now twice found himself playing outside O’Gara in the recent past [against France in the warm-up match in Dublin and against Australia in Auckland] and he has not looked out of place in either instance. Sexton has good pace and is physical enough, if nowhere near as accomplished a defender as D’Arcy. Inside centre is a position where you have to make a lot of tackles on a lot of big men: D’Arcy was the leading tackler in the Irish backline in four out of five Six Nations games this season, and made the most tackles of any Irish back in the tournament. To be honest though, watching their game against the US, there’s no threat in midfield from the Italians. Without referring to the teamsheet, I couldn’t even tell you who the Italian No12 is today.
Fergus McFadden is seen more as a winger by Declan Kidney. Despite playing most of his rugby this season at Leinster as an inside centre, he has seen no game time there for Ireland. Kidney persisted with an out-of-form D’Arcy during the Six Nations, and in fairness to Gordon, he turned in good performances in the biggest games of the season against England and Australia. When McFadden has been played in the centres [against Scotland in the Edinburgh warm-up and a bit of time at the weekend against Russia] he has been played at outside centre, and has actually had poor games defensively, being at fault for two tries. Realistically, I think his World Cup involvement from now on will be limited to making up the opposition in training. That’s the lot of some players in any thirty man squad, and at least he got eighty minutes against Russia and got his name on the scoresheet.
The real wild card would be to select Andrew Trimble at inside centre. Trimble was the best performer of the Irish backs in the warm-up matches bar none, and can consider himself very hard done by that Declan Kidney has ignored his claims to the left wing jersey in favour of Keith Earls. Still, after some fairly rubbish outings in the warm-up games, Earls looks to be hitting form, so it’s likely that the Ulsterman will find himself on the bench for the Italian match. However, Trimble played the 2008 Six Nations at centre under Eddie O’Sullivan. His distribution is certainly nothing to write home about: you can see that it’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to him. Against that is the fact that he offers good size, real physicality in contact – both with the ball and as a tackler –and a hell of a lot of pace. The Mole doesn’t see it happening, but it’s not entirely out of the question.