Malcolm O'Kelly says Ireland fans must trust Joe Schmidt's judgement after the head coach sensationally dropped Devin Toner from his 31 man squad for the Rugby World Cup.
The IRFU named the group that will travel to Japan today, six days earlier than planned, after the shock demotion was leaked.
67-times capped Toner is the biggest loser – having made 49 starts in 60 Tests under Schmidt, with Munster's Jean Kleyn named after playing just 125 minutes of international rugby.
“It's shocking news,” O'Kelly said. “I'm quite biased, I'd be pro-Dev, I know the value he brings in set piece, the lineout and the kickoff – he's a very safe pair of hands, and he has been for many years.
“Someone like Jean brings a certain amount of physicality – they'd be looking at his stats in terms of hitting rucks, he won't be winning the lineouts, he'll be the front of the lineout as your second option, he brings a bit more iron maybe in the pack, in terms of digging out and grafting in games.
“[But] as we saw against England, you can have all the graft you want, but if you don't get the ball in the middle of the lineout, you're in terrible trouble.
“I don't know for sure, but Devin probably saw it coming. I'm not 100% sure what it's down to, is it on the pitch or what? He had an ankle injury that he had an operation on, and maybe there's an element of that, that he's not back to that level of physicality or agility...he had a poor season by his own marks last year, with regards to injury so all these things are a factor in the coach's decision... perhaps he's just not there around the park, you have to trust the coaches on that one.”
O'Kelly, who played for Ireland in three World Cups from 1999-2007, says Toner will have to keep himself ready to fly at a minute's notice – but warned it will not be easy for the 33-year-old.
“My own experience dealing with coaches is you become used to these situation, your relationship goes beyond the fact of being upset,” O'Kelly told Off the Ball.
“You get your opportunity and you take it. If it comes next week and Dev is on the plane, he's not going to grumble and say 'I told you so' – you take the opportunity.
“It's very difficult, it's the hardest things to do, I can remember sitting down wth Declan Kidney myself on one occasion when I wasn't a starter – I was a bench player, and he was talking to me about how to add value to yourself.
“Dev's career isn't over, it's only one injury away. He will realise that, and has to try bring as much value as he can. If you don't do that, you'll be out of the squad completely. There's always someone looking over your shoulder. He won't give up. There'll be opportunity there for him again I'm sure.”
O'Kelly believes Rhys Ruddock's physical presence, versatility and Peter O'Mahony's utility across the backline cost Jordi Murphy his spot – the Ulster man another surprise omisssion.
“Joe has a few options there, Rhys is a hugely physical presence, and against England and South Africa you need lads who can really match up physically.”
Kieran Marmion, supposedly a Schmidt favourite, who led Ireland to wins over New Zealand and England in recent years, missed out to Leinster's Luke McGrath, while Chris Farrell got the nod in midfield ahead of Will Addison, who had been expected to travel – due to his ability to cover a host of positions around the back field.
Jack McGrath – a Lions prop just two years ago, misses out entirely with Dave Kilcoyne edging ahead in the loosehead options, while Jack Carty nabs the third out half slot, behind Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery.
O'Kelly says the squad is 'fine', but he wants to see a serious improvement in performance against Wales this weekend.
“We're missing that X factor, that spark,” he said. “My favourite player is someone like Dan Leavy – and the squad could do with someone like him, or Peter O'Mahony really getting on fire. We have a strong squad but we just need to get the guys really up and going.
“Next Saturday is huge, they need to amp up the performance again. The squad is sound, it's about finding those performances, attaining the highest performance they can.”
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