CHARLIE MULQUEEN: Best in pole to fill in as skipper

It’s not just Ireland but Munster who have been left reeling by last night’s shock news concerning Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray.

While the latter’s knee injury had been well flagged by his enforced departure in Paris, few realised that the captain was in even greater trouble with a similar problem. Not only are the pair out of the remainder of the Six Nations but also have a fight on their hands to be fit for the Munster-Ulster Heineken Cup quarter-final on April 8.

Most focus is now on who Declan Kidney chooses to replace O’Connell with as captain. Ulster’s Rory Best stands out with plenty of experience in the role and is one of the most respected members of the squad.

Ronan O’Gara has also led Munster several times and invariably flourished in the role. However, his prospects are not helped by playing second fiddle to Jonny Sexton for the number 10 jersey. Still, it would be some 35th birthday present for the record capped Irish player should he be handed the honour by his long time mentor at tomorrow’s team announcement.

Just as pertinently, Kidney must also decide on how best to plug the gaps left by the injuries to O’Connell and Murray. The most obvious course of action would be to pair Donncha O’Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan in the second row, although Ulster’s Dan Tuohy will surely enter the equation.

A call has to be made between Isaac Boss and Tomás O’Leary for the scrum-half position while you wonder if there are any regrets in either the Ireland or Munster camps that Peter Stringer, still arguably the best passer of a ball among all the scrum-half options, has been allowed to ply his trade in loan spells in England with Saracens and Newcastle Falcons.

Many felt that now more than ever Kidney needed to place more trust in his squad, although last night’s development may well dissuade him from such a course of action. And yet, there still seems a degree of logic in giving a few key men a breather on Saturday, all the more so with the big clash against the “auld enemy” looming a week later on St Patrick’s Day.

From the time he was first appointed national coach, Kidney has stressed the importance of a wide and representative squad, ideally with a minimum of two players in each position. With the exception of tight head prop, where Mike Ross has finished each of the three games so far, Kidney has achieved that aim.

Consideration could be given to starting Tom Court and affording Cian Healy a break from which he could well benefit. This is also the ideal game in which to give Peter O’Mahony his first start and the man to give way may be Jamie Heaslip rather than Sean O’Brien. The latter’s disgust at being substituted on Sunday was both apparent and understandable. Heaslip is another who could benefit from a week off and a back-row trio of O’Brien at number eight in between O’Mahony at seven and Stephen Ferris at six should prove a nicely balanced unit.

With the exception of scrum-half, the back line is unlikely to be altered — that is if you preclude the possibility of Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton both being accommodated from the start. They filled the number 10 and 12 jerseys at the finish of the two most recent games, leading one to suspect that Kidney has a sneaking fancy for such a line-up.


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