Ireland coach Declan Kidney seldom opts for surprises.
But injuries to six first-choice players and the need to safeguard Ireland’s place in the second tier of the rankings ahead of the 2015 World Cup forced his hand yesterday when it came to naming Ireland’s starting 15 and eight replacements for tomorrow evening’s Aviva Stadium clash with South Africa.
The unexpected rabbit he pulled from the hat was in selecting Connacht’s Mike McCarthy in the second row.
In the injury-enforced absence of Paul O’Connell, fellow-Munster man Donncha O’Callaghan had been tipped to get the nod, but Kidney surprised the pundits by including the Connacht man instead.
McCarthy has only four caps to his credit at this stage, whereas O’Callaghan has won 88. But the Connacht second row is the form player; indeed, so impressive has he been in the green of his province that, in Kidney’s eyes, he merits the green of his country ahead of O’Callaghan and, of course, Ulster’s Dan Tuohy who did not make the match-day 23.
Tuohy, it seems, was a victim of a below-par showing in Ireland’s last match – that 60-0 whipping by the All Blacks back in June.
On a brighter note, Ulster last night confirmed a contract extension which weds the second row to the province until 2015.
In the absence of Rob Kearney, Kidney did as expected by naming Munster wing Simon Zebo at full-back. It will be his first start for Ireland, his one previous international outing having been as a replacement.
Half-back was another area which had given rise to much speculation, with Leinster pair Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton having presented a very strong case by virtue of their pedigree as a Heineken Cup-winning double act.
Once again, though, Kidney has handed the number nine jersey to Conor Murray, presumably in the belief that his physique will be better suited to withstanding the famed aggression of the Springboks pack.
With Stephen Ferris missing, Peter O’Mahony starts at six, with Ulster’s Chris Henry named on the open-side flank, thereby ensuring Ulster representation in the pack, albeit only one-strong.
It will be Henry’s first start on home soil, his two previous caps having been won in Australia and New Zealand. No-one could argue that he has earned this chance; his Ulster form has been exceptional.
No such Tom Court, however. An ever-present on the bench, he misses out this time, Munster’s David Kilcoyne having managed to claim the number 17 shirt.
It could be a bad omen. Court’s big strength always has been his ability to prop on either side. Now, however, with sides able to name two props, his case has been somewhat undermined.
But there was good news for Ulster protege Iain Henderson, whose inclusion as a replacement suggests he can expect to be involved in the next World Cup — and hopefully several more after it.
The youngster has made rapid progress, something to which Kidney alluded to when he said: “The fact that Iain has made the step up so quickly is a tribute to him.”
In an all-Leinster front row, South African born and bred hooker Richardt Strauss wins his first Irish cap against the land of his birth and upbringing, qualifying as an Irishman under international rugby’s controversial residency rule.