O’Connor was due to reveal his side at midday today for the away leg at Franklin’s Gardens of this month’s Pool 1 back-to-back fixtures with the 2000 European champions. And while the Australian declared the talismanic former Ireland captain ready for action following a concussion against New Zealand 12 days ago, there are 14 other positions where he is spoiled for choice.
O’Driscoll has come through the mandated return to play protocols laid out by the International Rugby Board concerning concussions and O’Connor confirmed yesterday that: “He’ll be playing. He’s as good as gold”.
Yet the Leinster boss must reintegrate the rest of his sizeable contingent of Irish Test players into a winning squad this weekend.
That sees Rob Kearney vying with Zane Kirchner for full-back for the first time since the South African’s debut on October 26 and the battle for the number 10 jersey resumed between former All Black Jimmy Gopperth and Ireland’s Ian Madigan.
“The Test boys have come back well. We’re in a good place,” O’Connor said. That still leaves, in addition to O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, the likes of Isaac Boss, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Dave Kearney, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien and Devin Toner to work back into his matchday squad.
As O’Connor said yesterday, it is not just about one player being better than the other.
“Back three, back row, it’s about combinations and about what that individual gets from the other blokes in and around him and vice versa. So that will be indicative of where we go this week in relation to the whole team,” he said, before focusing on the fly-half selection conundrum between Gopperth and Madigan.
“Both guys have slightly different skill sets and are capable of delivering for the team on any given day. So we’ll wait and see and whoever gets the nod has to stand up and deliver a quality performance because the competition within the group is so high.”
For O’Connor, who joined Leinster from Leicester in the summer as replacement for new Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, having a proven performer in Gopperth available gave the Kiwi an initial advantage over the less experienced Madigan.
“I suppose that would be fair. Ian hasn’t been in the environment nearly as long as Jimmy, pre-season and November, so [Jimmy] had a bit of an advantage in relation to that, which he capitalised on, and he played very, very well and was outstanding in those first two Heineken Cup games and has continued that form through the Rabo.
“So, Jimmy’s been very good for us, he’s taken those opportunities; Ian was very good for us against Scarlets. It’s a tough call every week and it’s going to be a tough call but thankfully we’ve got two really good blokes who can deliver for us.”
The same headache exists at full-back, from where Kirchner scored his first try for Leinster since joining the squad after the Springboks’ Rugby Championship campaign. With Rob Kearney in outstanding form, scoring a try against the All Blacks, that poses an selection issue, with Kirchner a candidate for a switch to the wing in order to accommodate both talents.
“So many of those skills are transferable. A lot of the best wingers in the world are actual full-backs, if you look at the Cory Janes and that sort of profile.
“It gives the rugby team a lot to have blokes who are out and out full-backs in the back three, so I’m sure [Kirchner] will find himself on the wing for us at some stage because the skill set is so similar.”
Rob Kearney believes he and his Ireland team-mates will have no problem geeing themselves back up for Heineken Cup action this weekend following the high emotions of their Test near-miss with the All Blacks.
Kearney gave his all in a mentally and physically draining experience for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad with an exceptional, try-scoring performance but now the focus has switched back to Leinster’s European campaign and a Pool 1 encounter at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens tomorrow evening.
“I think you have to [get over it] as best you can. It’s going to be one of those games that I imagine will stick with a lot of guys for a long time.
“That’s the job. You have to learn to get over these disappointments. And sometimes maybe the best thing can be to get out on a field and play another game of rugby and try to get a win under your belt and sort of banish whatever demons there has been from the week before.”
Getting back up for the next game is one thing, repeating the intensity against New Zealand is quite another but Kearney sees no reason why the men in green cannot get back to those same levels come the Six Nations campaign in February.
“Of course not,” he said. “You set a bar there. You have a potential. Okay, you’re not going to get to those levels every single week but you can get pretty close to them at times.
“The important thing for us is that we don’t have that big dip like we had in the second [November] Test. If we can get as close to that level that we set every single week, we’ll be in a good place”.
Schmidt revealed yesterday he had sat his Ireland squad down at the start of the three Test Guinness series against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand and told his players that they were “going for the All Blacks” but Kearney said that was hardly a surprise to hear from their national coach.
“I think we probably knew that ourselves. It was the one of the three that we wanted to win.
“Given the history attached to it and the feat of being undefeated for their last game, it was the most attractive one to win. Were we a little bit guilty of dipping hugely in the second Test because of what was coming the following week? Maybe, a little bit.
“That was probably a poor reflection on us as a team of where we were mentally in that middle week. It is no secret that was the one we wanted to win. It is only natural that you would want to win the biggest ones.”
Suitably rejuvenated, Kearney is now moving on from the New Zealand experience to another big one, this time for Leinster in Northampton.
“There probably was an emotional high for a lot of guys and I think that’s why it was important for some guys to get that little break last weekend,” he said.
“That will add a huge amount of value to those guys who were involved in that game. Certainly from what I’ve seen from everyone this week with the internationals coming back everyone is fuelled up and ready to go.”