A WEEK ago today, Donncha O’Callaghan’s prospects of being considered for a starting place on the Irish team against England at Twickenham appeared remote at best.
He hadn’t played a match since suffering a knee injury in Munster’s Heineken Cup clash with Northampton on January 22nd and when he wasn’t included in the squad for the Magners League game against Edinburgh on Friday, it seemed the best he could have hoped for was a place on the bench against the English.
However, he was yesterday chosen to start Saturday’s game and win his 59th cap. It seems very harsh on Leo Cullen, who performed with distinction in O’Callaghan’s absence against both Italy and France when he and Paul O’Connell combined to exert serious pressure on the opposing line-outs.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney would have been aware that he was courting a deal of criticism in making this call, all the more so because of his stated policy of picking players in form.
How, then, can he reconcile preferring a man who hasn’t had a game for more than a month ahead of one who has performed more than adequately during that period of time?
“I have to go on what I see at training,” he explained. “Donncha has done most of the sessions and again we’re probably into the realms of me talking him up which I find hard to do because by contrast to that I might be seen to be trying to talk Leo down. There’s an opportunity cost whichever way we go. In Leo not being there, I know that can cost us in some things.
“No two players are the same and we just feel the mix Donncha will bring into this one is the right mix for this game. It’s a call of slim margins and there will obviously be a little debate around town and I understand that.
“But I think people will respect that we see what goes on at training. It’s not that Leo is playing poorly, he’s actually playing particularly well and we had a particularly good defensive line-out against Italy and France. But that’s my role, to make these calls on what I see when all the factors are put in front of me.”
The other big call is the selection of Jonathan Sexton ahead of Ronan O’Gara.
“It was the same thing (as Leo and Donncha),” he commented. “To leave someone like Rog out for this match is not an easy call on him or the team with the wealth of experience and knowledge that he has but I just felt it was right to give Jonathan this go. He’s been training well and has come through well and that’s the kind of squad we want. If we didn’t have that squad, we could be caught badly.”
Tomás O’Leary will be relieved at retaining the scrum-half berth ahead of Eoin Reddan. It’s a call that also appears to fly in the face of the “player in form” syndrome and leaves one to wonder where it leaves not just Leo Cullen but Reddan in the coach’s mindset. It has appeared for some time that Kidney doesn’t rate the Leinster number nine very highly – he released him during his days at the helm at Munster – and it is also pertinent to point out that backs coach Alan Gaffney has also spoken in the past of his perceived lack of physicality. And that’s an area where O’Leary certainly will not be found wanting.
Geordan Murphy’s selection at full-back in place of the injured Rob Kearney had been well flagged. The Leicester Tiger comes in for his 64th cap having started his first game for his club since September against Gloucester on Saturday last when he also scored a try.
“It was important that he came through the 80 minutes there,” said Kidney. “We don’t talk about knocks and bruises because in Ireland right now we have a lot of people with a lot worse things going on in their lives. The fact that Geordan played the 80 the other day put him in the frame and with the players we had available, we think it’s the best mix going into Saturday.”
The replacement panel will also arouse some animated debate and is significant for the absence of Tom Court who had performed impressively in the unfamiliar position of tight head prop as a sub against Italy and France. The spot instead goes to Munster’s Tony Buckley, whose scrummaging ability has come in for some adverse comment.
“Tom and Tony are the two lads with the experience of playing on either of the scrum,” Kidney pointed out. “Tom was in good fettle coming off the January Heineken Cup matches and we gave Tony the starts in the two A games and he had the Magners League last week. I thought it was prudent to give him this one. Marcus (Horan) is making good progress as well and Mike Ross joined in at training this week. It’s important to keep everyone going but you don’t just give a guy a jersey to keep him going well and I thought Tony made an impact for Munster. Unfortunately, someone has to lose out.”
The bench also sees Shane Jennings preferred to his Leinster colleague Kevin McLaughlin in the back-row and Connacht hooker Sean Cronin called up as the stand-in hooker behind Rory Best now that Jerry Flannery is suspended.
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