A THIGH injury picked up in training on Monday ruled Jonathan Sexton out of Saturday’s RBS Six Nations opener against Italy at Croke Park, so Declan Kidney’s number 10 jersey preference for the challenges ahead in the championship is still unclear.
Sexton filled the position in the two most recent games against Fiji and South Africa last November, but gives way to Ronan O’Gara, who wins his 94th cap against the Italians and has a huge opportunity to capitalise on his rival’s misfortune.
It remains unclear as to which of the talented pair Kidney would have opted for had both been available and he certainly wasn’t going to show his hand when the subject was raised at yesterday’s team announcement.
“You learn in this job never to make a decision until you have to,” he answered. “The challenge for me is to deal with the players as best I can and let them know where they stand. Once they know that, that’s all that matters.”
Sexton has been laid low by a knock to the thigh. Kidney explained that “at the end of yesterday’s session he pulled up and we got the results of a scan last night. But it’s still only the first 48 hours and we should know more by Friday. He got a bit of a dead leg and there’s a little bit of a tear below the haematoma.
“As for France on Saturday week, we would be hopeful he’ll be in contention even if he might have to work for it.”
With Sexton ruled out, most interest switched to the unexpected choice of new cap Kevin McLaughlin at number six in place of the luckless Stephen Ferris, who again suffers because of injury, this time to his knee and the selection of Gordon D’Arcy and Andrew Trimble ahead of Paddy Wallace and Keith Earls at first centre and on the left wing.
McLaughlin, a number eight in his school days at Gonzaga, is a banker turned flanker having worked in AIB for the first few years of his adult life and also completed a business degree at UCD while finding time to feature as second bass with the RT choir.
He was dogged by injury for much of that time, mainly with the a/c joint in his shoulder, and with his progress frustrated, he seriously considered changing his career path before an early season chat with Leinster coach Michael Cheika prompted him to give it another year.
However, it was the departure of Australian Rocky Elsom that really opened the door for 25-year-old McLaughlin, who has cemented his place in the Leinster back-row with a number of fine recent performances. His abrasive style obviously captured Kidney’s attention but this still represents a big step-up for a relatively inexperienced player.
Another big call centred on the choice of D’Arcy ahead of Wallace (who has the consolation of covering the out-half berth) at first centre. It was largely anticipated given the Leinster man’s outstanding form throughout the season, although Kidney admitted they were “going toe-to-toe for the number 12 jersey. I’m not going to talk one guy up to the detriment of the other. In the ideal world as a coach, in one case you get to the stage where you don’t mind who plays and in another, you have to disappoint somebody of the quality of Paddy.”
Accepting that competition for places means seriously good players are going to be omitted, the coach added: “to become a good team, that’s what you must have. In Andrew’s case, he had been carrying an injury, but I felt he has been going well for Ulster in a number of positions, one of them left wing. I think that’s a technical position in its own right in the same way tight head and loose head are different. It means leaving out a player of Keith’s quality but, again, it’s the kind of problem any coach would like to have.”
Otherwise, it was more or less as expected with Jerry Flannery coming back as hooker and Rory Best on the bench as his understudy, having made a remarkable recovery from a neck injury. John Hayes stretches his haul of caps to 98, with Tom Court edging Marcus Horan and Tony Buckley as replacement prop.
Most people discount Italy’s challenge on Saturday but Kidney and his management team must be seen to treat them with every respect, all the more so given that in South African Nick Mallett they boast a coach of considerable reputation.
“From his time with the Springboks and Stade Francais, I have always admired him because his teams have always played for each other,” said Kidney.
“The way they are improving, the pressure they will put on us and the way they might play on Saturday, being where I’m from, I would admire that because they will pressurise us in every aspect. They’ll put enormous pressure on our set pieces and unless we’re up to that, we won’t have the ball. Their kicking game is getting better, the holes are not in their back three like there might have been last year.
“All the time, he is tidying up the little bits while, at the same time, working on the core values. They’re coming off a win in their last match against Samoa and so their spirits are going to be a little higher. The history books show that the last two home games against them have been difficult for us. It will be a Test match and, as Eddie O’Sullivan before me used say, it’s a case of which team hits the ground running and that will be the case with all six on Saturday.”
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