Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Ireland have to stand tall

Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip are all likely to be in Joe Schmidt's starting side

That All Black epic seems like an eternity ago. We can hear the sound of bagpipes coming in the distance as interim coach Scott Johnson (the SRU are patiently awaiting Vern Cotter's arrival from Clermont Auvergne) steers the opposition we must never take for granted into view.

All logical pre-tournament evidence suggests a home banker to set the 2014 Six Nations challenge under way but therein lies the biggest obstacle for Joe Schmidt and Ireland ahead of Sunday's eagerly awaited kick-off.

From rank outsiders against the Kiwis to red-hot favourites next time out ... that is pressure no matter how much we look to play it down.

All attention turns now to the new Ireland head coach's thinking and his soon to be declared hand ahead of the weekend's Aviva clash.

Of necessity, there must be two changes to the run-on XV from November, with both Tommy Bowe and Sean O'Brien succumbing to injury.

In addition, Declan Fitzpatrick and Kevin McLaughlin have slipped off the radar from the match-day 23 on duty that memorable day.

While there is no doubt injury offers opportunity to others, any team deprived of the services of Bowe, and O'Brien in particular, is going to feel it. Pushed to name our world-class players at this point in time, these two would be at the top of my list.

But it is an ill wind that blows no good and given what we witnessed from the Wolfhounds in Kingsholm on Saturday there are genuine grounds for optimism for the upcoming championship – if the form, hunger and spirit of the shadow squad is anything to go by. I played in a couple of these fixtures in my time.

The original of the species in the mid-70s was confined to uncapped players only, designated 'B' status and most definitely a trial opportunity to be grabbed in search of involvement in the real thing.

Whether carrying 'B', 'A' or the Wolfhound moniker the shadow internationals had lost their lustre somewhat in the intervening years but, on recent evidence, the purpose is back.

Schmidt and Les Kiss cannot but have been impressed as their stated mission "to increase the strength and depth of squad" looked well and truly under way.

Against the Saxons, on their home patch in trying conditions, there was a unity of purpose, a sense of camaraderie and yet still individual ambition on view.

Dave Kilcoyne, Iain Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O'Donnell, Jordi Murphy, Robin Copeland (what a great signing by Munster), Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw and Fergus McFadden were the stand-out performers on a day when most of the 23 delivered the type of attitude that Schmidt and Wolfhounds coaches Anthony Foley and Ulster's Neil Doak would have craved.

This wasn't just a spirited win but one built on real substance.

Had Freddie Burns crossed in the corner on the last play and followed it up with the conversion it would have been daylight robbery.

The Wolfhounds made that little bit of late luck because they ran and tackled themselves silly for it.

Simon Zebo, a surprise omission from yesterday 34-man squad for Scotland and Wales, did well upon his return, with the out-of-sorts Craig Gilroy one of the few to clearly perform below his proven standard.

The bottom line sees the head coach presented with selection issues not apparent prior to kick off at Kingsholm – at tighthead, one second row, openside and right wing.

By extension, decisions there will impact upon the bench. Cian Healy will be at loosehead and on the basis he maintains discipline (no red mist) and fitness he takes over the reins for guaranteed forward momentum from the Tullow Tank.

Rory Best will be at hooker with Mike Ross alongside, although he's now under pressure from Martin Moore.

Paul O'Connell will wear five, with a decision to be made between Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy and Iain Henderson (outstanding in Gloucester) as to who replaces Donnacha Ryan alongside O'Connell.

It is a big call but I admire Schmidt greatly for going with the unlikely combination of Toner and O'Connell to start against the All Blacks.

I see no reason for changing that thinking now although McCarthy and Henderson (Dan Tuohy too) are very much back in the mix.

In the back row, Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip are nailed on for me.

Of course O'Brien will be missed but on the basis of balance and chemistry a straight call between Chris Henry and O'Donnell is both logical and right.

There is also the option of shifting O'Mahony to seven with either Ruddock or Copeland at six. Murphy (increasing in impact by the game) offers cover at six, seven and indeed eight, although not yet in the middle of the backrow at this level.

It is a fascinating conundrum given the input of all four (Ruddock, O'Donnell, Copeland and Murphy), and Henderson too, against the England shadow side. But it would be O'Mahony, Henry and Heaslip to make the starting unit for me.

Beyond that, Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton at half back with Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll alongside looks right. Rob Kearney too picks himself with the in-form Luke Fitzgerald on his left.

On the right wing, a big call awaits between the ultra-consistent Dave Kearney and the back-from-injury McFadden. Kearney the younger has done so much right and precious little wrong for province or country this season but McFadden has that little bit over his fellow Clongownian at the highest level.

As for the replacements? Dare we suggest some amount of late-night oil being burnt out Maynooth way. Sean Cronin should be at hooker with Jack McGrath at loosehead, leaving the inexperienced Moore the justified shadow for Ross.

In the second row, the call should be between McCarthy and Henderson, while O'Donnell and Copeland battle it out to complete the forward cover.

At scrum-half, Boss surprisingly misses out, leaving Eoin Reddan as the replacement.

Out-half is a huge issue again. So good was Madigan against the Saxons that a place must be found as an impact sub. Unless Paddy Jackson were to start (which he will not) then the case for Madigan in reserve (to Sexton) is overwhelming.

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