Six Nations: Axe factor for Kidney as O’Gara misses out
The folly of trying to read Declan Kidney’s mind was underlined afresh when he gave the media another body swerve in announcing his team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
The Irish coach, famed for keeping his cards so close to his chest as to be invisible, has made four changes to the 15 who started against France in Paris on February 13, two of them enforced.
With Jerry Flannery suspended it did not take a clairvoyant to see that Rory Best would replace him. The Ulster hooker was the obvious choice.
The recall of Leicester’s Geordan Murphy for injured full-back Rob Kearney sidelined by a painful reminder of an ill-fated day for the Irish at Stade de France was not totally unexpected either.
Murphy — one of two non-Irish-based starters, Ospreys’ Tommy Bowe being the other — completed 80 minutes against Gloucester last weekend, thereby confirming his full recovery.
This will be his 64th Irish cap, the most recent of which was in last March’s Grand Slam-clincher against Wales at the Millennium Stadium where he replaced Kearney. Murphy has 18 international tries to his credit, 12 of them from full-back.
Less anticipated was the recall of Donncha O’Callaghan at the expense of the unfortunate Leo Cullen, the Leinster lock and captain who certainly did not let anyone down in his recent starts against Italy and France.
O’Callaghan has not played since January 22.
Kidney said that it had been a difficult decision, reiterating the point that the idea of a squad is to deploy players of equal calibre but different talents for specific matches.
O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell is a proven Munster, Ireland and Lions partnership forged in the furnace of Thomond Park, a Grand Slam campaign and South Africa.
The back row survives intact, which means Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip pack down at six, seven and eight respectively.
Wallace, whose form has been less than that expected of a player of his ability, is the loose forward whose retention will have caused Kidney most pre-selection deliberation.
Leinster’s Shane Jennings or club colleague Kevin McLaughlin both offered options and strong cases for inclusion, with the former ultimately named on the bench by virtue of being able to cover six as well as seven, coupled with his experience of time spent with Leicester where he will have faced a number of this weekend's English side’s players.
Behind the pack Ronan O’Gara swaps places with Jonathan Sexton, with the Leinster stand-off starting and his Munster counterpart named as a replacement.
Unlucky Ravenhill colleagues Tom Court and Paddy Wallace have been nudged off the bench, their places as cover for prop and centre/wing having gone to Munster’s Tony Buckley and Ulster’s Andrew Trimble respectively.
As with Cullen, the decision with regard to them will be tough for Court and Wallace to stomach, neither having failed to perform well in previous outings. Both offered experience and, in each case, versatility.
Court can play one or three while Wallace in recent times, has
played centre and full-back for Ulster, to say nothing of an end of January run at fly-half for Ireland A against England Saxons.
The suspicion is that there may be a little bit of IRFU politics at play and if that is indeed the case one cannot but feel for Ulster’s latest victims.
Cullen at least has the solace of a placeamong the replacememnts. Not so the Ulster pair, with Kidney having confirmed that there was no injury issue in either case. The decisions to omit both from the 22 were purely tactical.
Explaining his unforced changes, Kidney said: “We’re fortunate that we have a number of guys pressing for places. I just felt it was opportune to give some of the lads coming in their chance.
“Donncha has been going okay in training, but Leo has played very well.
“And we’re blessed with two great out-halves, one with huge experience, the other up and coming.”