Tyrone Howe: Best has once again shown worth to Irish
It must have been the easiest selection decision of his legendary coaching career, as Declan Kidney prepares for Ireland’s final game against Scotland and a crack at another Triple Crown.
The main reason is that some potential selection dilemmas have been well and truly answered over Ireland’s last two Championship matches against England and Wales respectively.
Kidney will, no doubt, have posed testing questions to his players after the heavy defeat and lack of performance against France, but his charges have responded in style.
Areas that might previously have been up for discussion have surely now been settled — well, at least for the foreseeable future.
The biggest achievement belongs to Rory Best, and it is remarkable that he has made such a rapid and successful return to rugby after the trauma and rehab of serious neck surgery.
What a comeback — he has played a key role in contributing to the success of the Irish lineout, while his strength and technical ability continue to defy those who seek to destroy the Irish scrum.
As has been prevalent throughout his rugby career, his defence and work at the breakdown set him apart — he has surely nailed the number two shirt.
Tomas O’Leary came in for some stick after his role in the French match and the criticism was justified.
I still harbour concerns about the speed of his pass and technical scrumhalf skills when the Irish pack is under real pressure, but there can be no doubt about the threat that his pace around the fringes poses to opposition defences.
He is still a work in progress but his last two performances have secured his selection.
He has played himself into a situation where he is, in all senses, the front runner.
For this, Kidney deserves huge credit as he has identified O’Leary’s strengths and created patterns and plays within Ireland’s tactics that optimise the Munster scrumhalf’s pace.
Finally, any debate over the inclusion of Keith Earls has surely been put to bed.
He has continued to improve throughout the Championship and is well-worthy of his place. We already know about Earls’ pace and instinctive attacking intent, but several moments last Saturday confirmed that his skillset is wider and more subtle than just running with the ball.
When kicking into space was the best option, he identified and executed it effectively, and then almost pulled a rabbit out of the bag by playing keepy-uppy with the ball on the halfway line after a rare poor pass from Brian O’Driscoll.
Looking forward to Saturday’s game, Kidney will not entertain any notion of complacency, and there are plenty of aspects that will focus the mind leading into the final match of the series against Scotland.
Ireland are clearly the better side, but this does not guarantee victory.
Results suggest that the game will be a much closer affair than many predict.
Scotland could have beaten England, who two weeks earlier were only minutes away from snatching victory against Ireland at Twickenham.
Technically, there is room for quite significant improvement.
Ireland have needed to be incredibly efficient, as possession and territory have not been in plentiful supply.
A real target would be to achieve a better than 50 per-cent return in these two areas.
We have seen what is possible with limited possession, imagine what could be achieved if Ireland can win its fair share of the ball.
Another area which was unacceptable was the penalty count.
Confusion reigns at the moment about how the tackle area is being refereed, but the players have to get early clarity from the referee and just adapt to it accordingly.
Teams look for a single figure penalty count, so 16 penalties is way off the mark.
Croke Park has had an opportunity to enjoy Irish rugby at its zenith and has played its own role in some of the historic events.
The defeat of Wales last weekend means that Ireland have now beaten every one of their Six Nations rival at their temporary home.
Irish romanticism aside, it is inconceivable that Kidney or the players will allow Croker to suffer a defeat in the last match to be played on its turf.
Kidney’s message may be ‘Same again lads’, but it will be followed by the demand, ‘only better’.