For a while there it looked as if Ronan O’Gara’s Test career might undergo a phoenix-like rebirth as Declan Kidney read out his team to face France on Saturday.
Three days after dropping the Munster out-half, Ireland’s most-capped player, from his 32-man squad for the penultimate game of this year’s RBS 6 Nations, head coach Kidney not only had to admit defeat in the race to get first-choice No 10 Jonny Sexton back to full fitness but also felt the need to leave the position vacant, for the time being at least.
Paddy Jackson is in line to start against the winless French at the Aviva Stadium with Ian Madigan poised for a chance off the bench.
Yet Jackson, who made his Test debut in the defeat to Scotland a fortnight ago having leapfrogged the out of form O’Gara into the starting XV, has some injury issues of his own.
While Sexton’s torn hamstring, suffered in the first half of the 12-6 loss to England on February 10, failed to pass muster in time to face France this weekend, Jackson, 21, reported a tight hamstring following training.
Kidney fully expects the rookie fly-half, who regained some kicking form last weekend for Ulster after converting only one from four attempts at goal in the 12-8 loss at Murrayfield, Scotland, to line out for Ireland at the weekend but the intriguing possibility remains that Madigan may be the only fit fly-half in the squad and the door may have been re-opened for a dramatic return for the discarded O’Gara.
“I’m told he will be fully available for the weekend,” Kidney said of Jackson. “Rather than put the pressure on by naming him and then withdrawing him given there is a small chance of that happening, we’ll leave it open. Up until 1pm (yesterday) we were keeping all slots open with three 10s but Jonny Sexton is now withdrawn.”
As to any potential call-up for O’Gara in the event of Jackson being withdrawn, Kidney remained tight-lipped except to say the veteran who turns 36 tomorrow had not been summoned back into camp.
“I know what way I’ll go and when I come to that bridge I’ll cross it.
“We’ll work our way through that. As of now I have two fit out-halves for Saturday… when you’ve given the amount of service Ronan has given you don’t want to be… it’s tough enough to leave him out you don’t want to drag him all around the country unless you have something for him.”
Regarding that decision to drop O’Gara, Kidney did not accept the suggestion it would have been easier, following two defeats in which the Corkman had struggled for form when replacing the starting 10, to have kept him in the squad.
“These calls have to be made. That’s the role of the coach. It was a very tight call but when you have to do your job, you have to do your job.”
“It’s not about bringing anything down on myself, it’s about just doing my job. That’s the way I see it. The easy thing at this time is to make no decision.”
Just as it has been throughout this international season, injuries have clouded any hope of Kidney applying any sky-blue thinking to his team selection for this Saturday’s match.
So beleaguered by injury is this Ireland camp that even the team photocopier joined the casualty list at Carton House yesterday, leaving Kidney to call out his starting XV for the Aviva Stadium clash to the assembled reporters, who normally receive a printed team sheet at these announcements.
Aside from the office equipment, Kidney lost the services of Ulster wing Craig Gilroy to a groin strain, calling in Leinster’s Fergus McFadden as his replacement.
And there was another A.N. Other in the team when reserve tighthead prop Declan Fitzpatrick was ruled out with a calf strain, with either Leinster’s Michael Bent or Munster’s Stephen Archer called into camp to fight it out for a bench spot this weekend.
Of the other confirmed changes to the Ireland team from last time out in Scotland, lock Mike McCarthy has overcome a knee injury suffered against England while loosehead prop Cian Healy is clear to play again after his three-week suspension for stamping in that same game was commuted on appeal to, well, three weeks.
The pair replace Donncha O’Callaghan and Tom Court respectively while Kidney was also positive about Sexton’s chances of returning for the final game of the championship in Rome against Italy on March 16. “He’s training well and everything is going smoothly but everything is going a little too fast for him,” the head coach said.
“We could put him out (against France) but there would be a good chance of him breaking down after five to 10 minutes so it’s prudent to wait a week and let him build up the strength in the muscle and he will be fine for Italy.”
In the meantime, Kidney confirmed that Jackson, if fit, would be place-kicking against the French, who name their team tomorrow.
“The same with Ian (Madigan). Fergus (McFadden) is obviously an option too.”
Kidney also insisted that despite the back to back losses to England and Scotland, he felt good about the chances of Ireland not losing three consecutive games for the first time in Six Nations history and, in the championship since 1998.
“The last two results are obviously very disappointing. We put ourselves in a difficult position against Scotland, we spilled a few balls against England in the first-half, got back to 6-6 but then penalties cost us in the second-half.
“It’s not like we’re a million miles away from it, that’s a fact. It’s just about stringing a few things together and it will be a more positive result for everybody.”
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