Method to madness of Wallace selection
Michael Bradley and Declan Kidney presumably have an honest and open working relationship as Ireland ‘A' and Senior team coaches respectively.
In that context, it's difficult to imagine either singing off a different hymn sheet from the other. Kidney selects the team and Bradley gets on with it, but, I think it's equally safe to assume, he gets on with it based on clear guidelines from the main man as to what he wants — individually or unit wise — from any particular ‘A' game.
To that end, the ‘A' team coach's post-match summary on Sunday has me somewhat perplexed. Specifically, it is his comments relating to Paddy Wallace. According to Bradley, who presumably is beamed in to Kidney, “it's up to other players (like Gordon D'Arcy and Jonathan Sexton) to get ahead of him (Wallace), because it's Paddy's jersey”.
Quite what jersey he means I'm not too sure. Presumably, it is the No 12 shirt in which the talented Ulsterman is most at home. Let me make my feelings clear in relation to the former Campbell College and Ireland underage out-half. He is a much under-rated player who has suffered (in representative terms) for his footballing versatility.
He is at his best at inside centre where he fills the dual role of emergency escape valve (to his out-half) as well as being a smooth and intelligent link to his outside backs. His skill set is different to that of D'Arcy, but that is the beauty of the squad system which enables the sensible coach to cater for and indulge in both.
When Kidney announced the ‘A' side for Bath, the selection which stood out was that of Wallace at out-half. If, as Bradley suggests, “he is already there” for Saturday against the Italians, then why risk him playing out of position on a heavy, mud-caked pitch just six days before the Six Nations opener.
There is method to everything Kidney does. He does not select for the sake of selection.
To me, the logic for Wallace's presence at 10 was to gain valuable match time as third out-half, and next in line, to Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton should either of his top two ship an injury in the coming weeks or, indeed, the next 18 months in the build-up to next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
Kidney may well have more immediate plans beyond that when naming his run-on 15 for Croke Park later today. He could well start, as Bradley appears to suggest, with Wallace alongside Brian O'Driscoll in the centre. It would be an unfair selection in my view as D'Arcy's striking form in recent weeks merits selection in his own right. Period.
Despite being second-best to the English Saxons, there were positives in terms of game time for Rory Best and Marcus Horan while Shane Jennings and late replacement Chris Henry caught the eye for their mobility and impact. Behind the scrum, Gavin Duffy was the rock of solidity when putting together his most effective full-back performance for some time. It should have done his personal confidence a power of good.
Beyond that — and despite the odd individual sortie — there was little to suggest the heat had been turned up on any of those back at base on the senior panel.
So, for Kidney, it's time to declare his hand. Most interest will, of course, centre on the out-half call but Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble have both done enough to threaten Keith Earls for Luke Fitzgerald's temporarily vacant left-wing slot. The temptation will be there to move Tommy Bowe from right wing to left — thereby facilitating the in-form Horgan on the right. Bowe is at his best on the right and should be left there, making it a straight call between Trimble and Earls for the left. Earls' potential is scary but, if Kidney operates on impact over the season so far, then it is Trimble in pole position with the on fire Horgan marginally behind.
The out-half issue doesn't overly concern me as, for the first time in yonks, we have two classy, game-running pivots who are well versed in the art of doing just that. For what it's worth, I do think Sexton might get the nod
but either/or it's a lovely position for Kidney and for Irish rugby to luxuriate in at last. Up front, there is an issue in the scrum and let's not pretend otherwise. In the next two weeks against Italy and France that potential vulnerability will be tested in full.
The first two names in the pack will be of most interest, with mostly likely Cian Healy or Marcus Horan at loose and Jerry Flannery — if fit — back at hooker. The remainder picks itself, with John Hayes completing the front line. Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell should be in second row, leaving Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip to complete the back row.
I suspect Earls will resume on the wing but, were the call mine then — fitness allowing — the team to face the Azzurri in our opening title defence would read as below.
WARD’S TEAM: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (capt, Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes; D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Reps: R Best (Ulster), T Buckley/M Horan (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), K Earls (Munster).