Ireland coach Declan Kidney does not believe the poor form of French clubs in this season’s Heineken Cup will have a detrimental effect on the national side during the Six Nations.
Kidney today named his strongest available XV for Ireland’s opening clash with the French at Croke Park on Saturday, and thinks Ireland will face a side out to prove a point to their critics.
With Munster and Leinster into the last eight of the Heineken Cup and Ulster’s form improving, there is a real hope Ireland’s bid to claim a first championship or Grand Slam in the professional era can materialise in 2009.
However, Kidney characteristically dampened Irish expectations, preferring to build up the chances of Marc Lievremont’s “hurt” French side.
“I think what happened in the Heineken Cup will solidify them a little bit and they’ll be out to prove a point,” said Kidney.
“If you look at our record against them, only three times in the professional era we managed to get the better of them (2000, 2001, 2003). Two of those were by one point and two points the other time.
“What they’ll bring to it is the best of 14 teams – that’s just the reality of it. I think what has happened in the Heineken Cup will have hurt them.
“Like a lot of sides in rugby, when there’s a little bit of criticism coming their way, it’s inclined to gel them and unify them. I think we could be seeing that at the start.
“They got things sorted out in November. We watched their November Tests and they were getting better and better as the games went on.”
Kidney was not tempted to restore the Gordon D’Arcy-Brian O’Driscoll midfield axis at today’s team announcement, instead plumping for in-form Ulster man Paddy Wallace.
Wallace and O’Driscoll were last paired together during the 2008 summer tour to New Zealand and Australia, with Wallace earning huge praise after notching a splendid try against the All Blacks in Wellington.
The two also were part of the successful 1998 Ireland Under-19 side that captured the World Championship in France – a team that was coached by Kidney, who insisted today Wallace “deserves his go”.
“Paddy and Brian have known each other for 10-11 years – even at under-19s they played next to one another (Paddy at 10 and Brian at 13),” said Kidney.
“It’s been a long time and I would respect everybody’s views as to what way it would be picked. To play Brian and Luke (Fitzgerald) would have meant changing their positions from a month ago and then changing someone onto the left wing position and putting someone else at full-back.
“I think there’s always a risk-management thing to be calculated as to who you bring through, but I would have confidence in them playing.
“I think Paddy has shown a lot of consistent form. I think he dovetails well with Brian and Ronan (O’Gara) inside and outside.
“He’s got a good temperament – I like that in the way he can bring that to the game. He’d have a feel for what an out half is going through and can lean in and take the pressure off the 10.
“And, at the same time, himself and Brian have been linking with one another over a 10-11 year period. I think he’s playing well and I think he deserves his go.”
Kidney also revealed there is a chance D’Arcy will see international game-time for the first time since breaking his arm in the opening game of the 2008 Six Nations.
He continued: “Gordon is on the bench, and maybe we’ll see him on Saturday. In fairness to Gordon, he’s been coming through matches as well; he’s played a bit on the right wing lately, and played for Lansdowne last Saturday, which was his first game at 12 since he’s come back.
“I think it would be unfair on him as well, too, when he’s all but 12 months out of the game to throw him in. And unfair on Paddy, too, because I think Paddy has been going nicely.
“Again that’s the benefit of the bench – let’s see how it goes as regards when guys come in on Saturday.”
Munster sensation Keith Earls was not considered because of a hamstring injury, although Kidney revealed he has an “outside chance” of making the squad for Ireland’s game against Italy in Rome on St Valentine’s weekend.
Meanwhile, Rob Kearney went over on his ankle at training in Limerick this morning. The full-back is on crutches but Kidney is confident the Leinster three-quarter will be fit for Saturday.
Breakingnews.ie reporter, Shaun Cronin, was at the press conference and interviewed Declan Kidney. You can hear the interview on our audio service.