Kidney backs young guns to fire

It wasn’t quite a resumption of normal service yesterday as Declan Kidney restored his old guard to the Ireland line-up for Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff — but countered that with the selection of the electric Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy on the wings.

Kidney backs young guns to fire

The return of former captain Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien and Rory Best, all of whom missed the November Tests due to injury, came as no surprise when Kidney revealed his hand to avenge three defeats in a row to last year’s Grand Slam winners.

Yet in selecting such an exciting wing duo, the national head coach has issued a statement of intent that Ireland will go to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday lunchtime fully prepared to match fire with fire against Lions favourites for the wide berths George North and Alex Cuthbert.

What Zebo (22) and Gilroy (21) lack in caps — the Munster man has three, his colleague from Ulster just one — they more than compensate for in terms of speed and the type of clever running lines to unsettle any defence.

And with the well-oiled midfield partnership of Gordon D’Arcy and O’Driscoll inside them, feeding off a Conor Murray-Jonathan Sexton partnership that is finally gelling into a potent half-back force, there is every expectation in the Ireland camp that Zebo, Gilroy and full-back Kearney can be unleashed on the Welsh defensive line with devastating results.

Both wings profited in November when Gilroy made his debut and got his Test career off to a flying start with the opening try at the Aviva Stadium in the seven-try romp against Argentina. Zebo, who started at full-back that day, also got on the scoresheet and with Tommy Bowe ruled out for the whole of the Six Nations, Kidney is backing both his young guns to fire down the Ireland flanks this weekend and beyond.

Munster’s Keith Earls, who filled in for O’Driscoll in his favoured outside centre position during the autumn, lost out in the race for wing positions and must settle for bench duty and Kidney described that decision as a big call before adding that rather than worry about the size and power of the Welsh wings, it is the likes of Earls and the omitted Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble that Gilroy should consider his biggest threats.

For Kidney, selection has always been about the players he omits pointing to the calibre of the person he starts and when asked about Gilroy’s perceived lack of defensive strength against the mighty North, he replied: “That’s the great thing about sport, there’s lots of good competition.

“I’d be more thinking not about the opposition, but how do you justify to Fergus or to Luke or to Andrew why I haven’t picked them. I would have a lot of time for all those lads, so that’s a vote of confidence to Craig and if he wants to keep it, then that’s his opposition, more so than anyone he’ll be playing against at any given time.”

The same, presumably, will have been explained to Ulster openside Chris Henry, who impressed during the autumn Tests against South Africa and the Pumas yet lost his place in a back row that will feature O’Brien in his position with Peter O’Mahony, on the day a new two-year contract was announced to keep him at Munster until the end of the 2014-15 season, starting at blindside in front of No 8 and captain Jamie Heaslip.

O’Mahony’s lineout prowess in addition to second rows Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy could have been a factor in his selection as Ireland look to exploit a Welsh unit missing quality locks Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris but Kidney warned against complacency when vying with their replacements, likely to be Ian Evans and Lou Reed as well as the equally rangy flanker Sam Warburton.

Yet for all the talk about who was not playing, on both sides, Kidney was delighted to welcome the return of O’Driscoll, hooker Best and company.

“It’s always good to have lads back in. We were missing quite a few back in November.

“But then we’ve lost Tommy and we’re still without Paul [O’Connell] and Fez [Stephen Ferris] and a few more of them. You try and stay sane by saying maybe you’ll have about a 15 per cent injury rate. We’re probably just over that. So no better or no different to the other sides, from the few bits I’ve seen in the news reels.

“England seem to have called one or two lads in, Wales have called one or two lads in but if you match ourselves and Wales, they’ve [lost] Alun Wyn Jones, so Paul and himself will miss the series. They’re down [Dan] Lydiate and we’ll miss Fez. They’re down [Rhys] Priestland and Tommy would probably balance that out. So we’re pretty much even stevens.

“But it’s good to have lads back, and good to have their experience back too. If you measure their caps it’s nearly like misprints — 41 (Kearney), 1 (Gilroy), 120 (O’Driscoll), 71 (D’Arcy), 3 (Zebo), it’s like Lotto numbers, isn’t it?”

Ireland will be hoping that by Saturday evening, very little else has been left to chance.

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