Five Questions

Ahead of today’s squad announcement for the Autumn Internationals, Alan Good considers the key questions facing Ireland coach Declan Kidney

Q: How much is riding on this series for him?

A: How differently might we be looking at this if the agonising 22-19 defeat by New Zealand in Christchurch had come in the summer tour’s final test? Yes, it’s still a loss, but the fact that Ireland went out and were humbled 60-0 the week after puts an entirely different hue on this series. Ireland have been maddeningly inconsistent amid a slump since the 2009 Grand Slam; witness losing all four World Cup warm-ups and going out with a limp performance against Wales. The meat in that sandwich? A tactical masterclass against Australia, which was arguably the best Irish victory given it came against SANZAR opposition, in the southern hemisphere, in a big tournament. Some pundits already have the knives out for Kidney and his contract is up next year; should things go askew once more in the autumn, his fate could be taken out of his own hands.

Q: How can he balance results and expectations?

A: Much like Kidney’s maiden autumn series in 2008, the minimum requirement is to beat Argentina in order to stay inside the world’s top eight and ensure Ireland are second seeds in the draw for the 2015 World Cup. They are currently ranked seventh but have the Pumas and Scotland pushing hard to usurp them. Some fairly ugly rugby was required to strangle the South Americans four years ago and Kidney may be tempted to stick to his tried and tested henchmen to get the job done again. Against that, a public underwhelmed by Ireland’s last Six Nations campaign will want to see signs of future-proofing the squad by bringing in some new faces ahead of the 2013 edition.

Q: Are the form picks the right picks?

A: “You always try to pick on form,” Kidney insisted last month. “You don’t hand out a green jersey easily.” Today’s squad announcement will see if the Cork man backs up these words with affirmative action. As with the knockout stages of Munster’s 2008 Heineken Cup campaign — when he bravely dumped Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer in favour of greenhorns Denis Hurley and Tomás O’Leary — Kidney must acknowledge that most of the country’s form players are also relatively inexperienced at this level, but select them anyway. Having a game against Fiji allows him some wriggle room as he can experiment somewhat.

Q: Who should the new faces be?

A: Iain Henderson (Ulster) and Mike McCarthy (Connacht) have hit the ground running this season, a welcome development for Kidney given Leinster’s struggles in this area and the question marks over the fitness of veteran Munster duo Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan. Chris Henry is many people’s choice to replace the injured Sean O’Brien at openside, given current incumbent Peter O’Mahony has played most of the season for Munster at number eight.

Shane Jennings should be in with a shout here too but the Irish management don’t seem to be fans of his. Paul Marshall is another Ulster man who is red-hot despite losing his number nine shirt to Ruan Pienaar last week, while Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion could challenge here too. Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss has been naturalised and is a better option right now than Munster pair Mike Sherry or Damien Varley. The time also looks right for Ian Madigan to make the back-up out-half slot his own.

Q: Will Ireland finally sort out their midfield future?

A: Being summoned from your holidays on a Portuguese beach to fly halfway across the world and be asked to take on Sonny Bill Williams, before you’ve even figured out what hour to set your watch to, isn’t most people’s idea of fun.

Paddy Wallace, a fine servant to Irish rugby, duly obliged, but it was a baffling call by Kidney on many levels. Ireland will also have to plan without Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy sooner rather than later; Connacht’s impressive midfielder Dave McSharry would be a brave pick now but Ireland fans will have kittens if Wallace gets the nod to be back-up once again.

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