A FIRST RBS Six Nations start for Keith Earls but Donncha O’Callaghan is again ruled out while serious doubts concern Stephen Ferris. These were the keynote developments from yesterday’s announcement of the Irish team to face France at Stade de France on Saturday.
Earls is in on the left wing for Andrew Trimble, who though troubled by hamstring could find a place on the bench. Leo Cullen continues in the second-row after O’Callaghan’s attempt to recover from a knee injury proved fruitless while a vacancy has been left at number six where Kevin McLaughlin will stand in for Ferris should the need arise.
No doubt, supporters of Trimble, especially those north of the border, will be unhappy at their man’s omission given that he played a major part in Jamie Heaslip’s try against the Italians last week. However Earls was unfortunate to be omitted Saturday and considering his talents it is not surprising he received the call from Declan Kidney.
There were hardly any other issues in the back division to unduly occupy the selector’s mind although he might well have considered trying Earls at full-back in place of Rob Kearney, who had a dismal day against the Azzurri, and retained Trimble on the wing.
However, that would have been an irrational decision — something for which the coach isn’t exactly renowned — considering the Louth man’s usually brilliant and fearless fielding and his ability as a counter attacker. Provided his confidence hasn’t been shaken by last week’s glitch, I expect to see Kearney back to his influential best on Saturday.
As for the forward pack, Kidney’s hands were tied to a large extent by injury. O’Callaghan’s physicality and intensity will be missed in the second-row but Ireland are fortunate to have a replacement of the ability of Leo Cullen.
Indeed, you suspect it would have been a close call between the pair had both been available.
One can also understand why Ferris is being afforded every opportunity to prove his fitness at number six. Although injury prone, he has proven himself one of the world’s best in the jersey and Ireland would be a much better proposition if they can avail of his all-round strengths, all the more so because the French back-row is so powerful. Hopefully, events will prove this observation to be wide of the mark but Kevin McLaughlin looks to be some distance off the pace at this level, making Denis Leamy’s enforced absence all the more regrettable.
Kidney has named a panel of nine replacements which will be reduced to seven on Friday. Jonathan Sexton has been included and it remains to be seen whether he or Paddy Wallace will be on the bench.
“We’re in the lucky position of having two good out-halves and after Ronan (O’Gara) went so well last week, there was no reason not to retain him,” said Kidney of the battle for the number ten jersey.
“Jonathan is making a good recovery and the final stage of that will be apparent tomorrow when he goes place kicking. Ronan’s experience should be more than helpful when we go to Paris. Keith (Earls) went very well against South Africa in November and didn’t do anything wrong in December and January. I thought Andrew did well last week but I have explained that I wanted to give Keith a go because I believe he deserves it. Donncha (O’Callaghan) trained this morning but he wasn’t deemed safe to take the pitch on Saturday. As for the England game two weeks later, he’ll be five weeks into it by then but that said, Leo (Cullen) did a smashing job for us last week.”
“I wouldn’t like to put a deadline on any guy coming back from injury. We’ll make the decision as quickly as we can on Stephen (Ferris). You don’t do that until you have to, the game isn’t until Saturday.”
A hat-trick of tries from Brian O’Driscoll a decade a go helped Ireland to their last victory in the French capital and Kidney expects another testing mission in Paris.
Few countries, with the possible exception of New Zealand, boast such an array of talent to choose from than France so Kidney claimed he had no difficulty in naming his side yesterday and was in no way trying to second guess what his counterpart Mark Lievremont might come up with when naming his starting team this morning.
“They have so much strength in depth that they could come up with any XV so we will concentrate on ourselves”, said Kidney. “We pay due diligence to every team we play, we take a look at them all in the same way, but France could come up with something different. It’s the unexpected that you expect of any French team. The boys will have to think on their feet out there.”
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