THIS Irish rugby squad is fast becoming a victim of its own success with expectation levels at home at an all time high coming into this year’s Six Nations. We have also become a treasured scalp for even the top teams. Nothing illustrated this more than the sight of a French side doing a lap of honour after beating Ireland in Paris.
Despite the nature of that defeat, England will savour a win over Ireland with similar relish. Some of their number sat back in silent admiration on the recent Lions tour at the assured presence and professionalism of the four O’s – O’Connell, O’Driscoll, O’Gara and O’Callaghan – along with the skill levels and confidence of the younger quartet of Steven Ferris, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe.
Eight years earlier on the tour of Australia, the shoe was firmly on the other foot as O’Gara and O’Driscoll along with many others got an insight and a new understanding of what being a professional rugby player was all about. In terms of preparation and application Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill were on a different planet. Rugby in this country has come a long way since then and one defeat in Paris of all places does not change that.
What has changed the ground rules for Declan Kidney this year has been an unfortunate collection of injuries.
With a minimum of two alterations required to the starting team from the Stade de France, it was always likely that Kidney would keep further changes for Saturday to a minimum.
Once Geordan Murphy proved his fitness at the weekend his inclusion at full back, for Rob Keaney, made sense even if he has had very little game time recently while Rory Best was the obvious replacement for JerryFlannery.
It is the other two alterations that will attract attention. FelipeContepomi’s injury in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster last May opened a door of opportunity for Jonathan Sexton that he has grasped with both hands.
He proved conclusively when afforded the chance against South Africa in November that he has the temperament to succeed at this level.
Ronan O’Gara has become the unwitting fall guy for the ills of Paris; in effect he is the only regular first choice player to be omitted and, in that sense, has been unfairly scapegoated.
Having played superbly in Munster’s last four Heineken Cup outings while running the show against Italy, he has every right to feel aggrieved. Sexton was always going to get a start in this championship and with a view to the future I can fully rationalise the selection.
The fact that former Irish defence coach Mike Ford, who is now part of the English coaching ticket, knows O’Gara’s game so well Kidney has made the calculated decision to add a bit of the unknown to the mix.
I can see where he is coming from.
What I couldn’t rationalise over the last few days was the suggestion by several pundits that if you picked Sexton then Tomás O’Leary should also be omitted.
O’Leary – and by extension O’Gara – suffered horribly from the static ball provided by the Irish forwards in Paris. O’Leary didn’t play well against France but Eoin Reddan has not done enough to replace him.
The Irish management felt the same. In any case O’Leary and Sexton played well as a partnership against the Springboks.
The inclusion of Donncha O’Callaghan for Leo Cullen, while very disappointing for the Leinster captain, is also the right call.
Cullen and Paul O’Connell are similar operators in terms of leading the line out and attacking the opposition throw.
O’Callaghan offers more physicality at the breakdown and at clearing out bodies and if Ireland are to produce quicker ball and rectify their deficiencies from the last game then this is where it must start.
The Cork man provides the same attributes as Simon Shaw brings to the table for England and that is why he has been recalled.
The bench reveals the strangest decision of all with Tony Buckley getting the nod over Tom Court who has made massive strides over the last 12 months and contributed well on his introduction in the last two tests.
Kidney obviously feels that the remarkable John Hayes, who deservedly collects his landmark 100th cap on Saturday, will not last 80 minutes and wants a specialist tight head in reserve. I am delighted an unsung hero like Hayes is the first Irish man to reach that outstanding feat.
At least the anomaly in terms of back three cover has also been addressed with Andrew Trimble replacing Paddy Wallace and pipping the unfortunate Shane Horgan to the No 22 jersey. Overall it is a far stronger bench with greater options than against France.
ENGLAND, who announced an unchanged side, seem to be under enormous pressure to perform every time they take to the field these days as not only are they expected to win but also play in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing to their audience. A bit like many a Welsh player having to live up to the standards of the marquee star names of the 1970’s, the current English squad is constantly undermined by comparisons with their World Cup-winning side of 2003.
England find themselves between a rock and a hard place at present. Their pack, minus injured test Lions Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery and Tom Croft are nowhere near dominant enough to bludgeon the opposition while their back line has lacked creativity in midfield and a genuine finishing prowess to match the undoubted pace of their back three.
Munster target Riki Flutey isshowing signs of addressing theirmidfield problems as he continues to recover from a succession of injuries but Johnson has chosen to ignore the fact that Wilkinson stands too deep in attack to maximise the pace at his disposal out wide.
What Johnson has done is opt for continuity in the hope that thewinning mentality they are developing at present will flourish and expand. This weekend is a pivotal one for him and his side. Win this one and they could well be travelling to the Stade de France in March chasing a Grand Slam. The inclusion of Ben Foden, Joe Worsley and Lee Mears on the bench also strengthens Johnson’s hand in comparison to Rome.
All is not well with English rugby at present, a point forcefully brought home this week by the announcement that the talented and somewhat misunderstood Danny Cipriani has decided to join the newly formed Australian Super XV franchise, the Melbourne Rebels. It is the equivalent of Fitzgerald, Kearney or Keith Earls heading Down Under because of a failure of the Irish management to support and encourage their particular skill sets or indeed to manage an ego that may require specific attention.
Cipriani should be getting every encouragement to work his way into the national side with the World Cup looming. It is hard to believe just how much his progress has been stifled since he inspired England to their 33-10 victory over Ireland in Twickenham in his first full start at this level. That and the prospect of Riki Flutey signing for Munster in the coming weeks is a sad reflection of where the English game is at present – even if they do manage to win on Saturday.
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