Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Declan Kidney is playing his cards right

Declan Kidney
Declan Kidney

Declan Kidney has long been portrayed as a conservative coach with an aversion to taking gambles.

That may be a fair depiction for the most part, but last week he revealed himself to be one hell of a poker player.

It is now clear just how much the Ireland supremo invested in a one-off result against the Wallabies to open up a clearer path to the latter stages of the competition.

Thus, we had the shadow-boxing of August, when various moves were kept in the cabinet with Kidney aware of the Aussie eyes studying every Irish manoeuvre.

There was also frequent use of the word "prudent" as Kidney explained the judicious use of his playing personnel - complicated by the need to work around injury issues - and then the calculated risk of unleashing Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney, who ran out at Eden Park with little game time under their belts after recovering from various knocks.

That proved a trump card as there was a resultant injection of enthusiasm and belief that energised Irish efforts in the build-up and unsettled the Australians on the night.

Fortune was always going to be a major factor and Kidney profited from some good hands (Stephen Ferris' successful return; a referee who understood the nuances of the tackle/maul and dominant scrum; the absence of David Pocock and Stephen Moore; the wet weather) and suffered from some duds (injury to Jerry Flannery; a horrible night in New Plymouth).

And even though it can hardly have been deliberate, Ireland's uncertain form in August and against the USA lowered Irish expectations and raised Aussie complacency to such a degree that Kidney had no problem locating the motivational triggers he squeezes so well - Flannery's injury adding an extra emotional dimension.

It all came together beautifully but, as the players and management have been keen to stress all week, it is done now - time to move on.

In fairness, the reluctance to let Saturday go has been driven by a delirious media (Kiwi and Irish) which is understandable, given the momentous nature of the result and its far-reaching implications.

But enough is enough. For there are a few certainties to bring everything back to earth.

One: the Wallabies will be back and New Zealanders should temper their exultation by dwelling on the fact that Robbie Deans' side are more than capable of using this setback to defeat South Africa and the All Blacks and reach the final.

Two: beating Australia will count for nothing if Ireland do not kick on and make the semi-finals.

And three: the Italians are relishing the chance to have a crack at the Irish while Wales have been sailing along under the radar and represent an almighty threat to Ireland's ambitions in the last eight.

With all that to consider, what do we need to see tomorrow against Russia?

Kidney says a 3-0 win will do, but that is merely a polite way of paying his respects. Russia were half-decent against the US, blown away by the Italians and will run out against Ireland tired and expecting a hammering.

And Ireland should give it to them, while continuing their excellent defensive performances (the best in the tournament), aware that they are up against a side that scored three tries against Italy.

So, no dramas, no tries conceded, no injuries, no prisoners - get the job done and then it's on to Italy.

It may sound simple but, after the topsy-turvy nature of the last month and a half and an emotional week in the spotlight, simple will do just fine.

AUDITION NIGHT

THE easy assumption is that the team that started against the Wallabies is set in stone but that is not necessarily the case.

Certainly, up front, it is hard to envisage any changes being made to the eight that started last weekend but in the backline, there are players pushing hard and, even though a big performance tomorrow is qualified by the weakness of the opposition, there is still plenty of incentive for certain individuals.

Given his good form, Conor Murray's exclusion from the match-22 creates the intriguing possibility that he may be in line to start against a physical Italian side where his size would be more than useful, so Eoin Reddan will be looking for a decent impact off the bench. Ronan O'Gara (pictured) is playing more assuredly than Jonathan Sexton and will seek to emphasise his good form again, while there is another opportunity to try that 10-12 combination in the second-half.

Not good news for Fergus McFadden, who was set to keep the pressure on Gordon D'Arcy for a place in midfield until Tommy Bowe's calf strain pushed him to the right wing. Meanwhile, Andrew Trimble has his own frustrations to exorcise on the far side, where he will be depending on Keith Earls (the man he is seeking to replace in the 11 jersey) to put him into space.

CLAIMING MILEAGE

TOMORROW'S selection, as well as using fringe squad members to cement unity, is a pragmatic way of giving frontline players more pitch time and extra experience in certain positions.

Hence, Cian Healy starting ahead of Tom Court, Sean O'Brien getting further exposure of the No 7 jersey and Donnacha Ryan getting a run out at six, before a likely switch to second row to give Donncha O'Callaghan (playing so Ryan could be accommodated in the back-row) a breather.

Jamie Heaslip is bubbling up nicely, and can break out a bit more than he has been allowed in the last two weeks while Rob Kearney will build on his encouraging return last week with the opportunity to showcase counter-attacking skills his detractors do not believe he possesses.

Playing front-liners runs the risk of injuries, particularly against a side as physical as the Russians but this is a fantastic opportunity to get basic systems running smoothly for the games ahead.

The lineout did not really figure last weekend but with three 6'6" jumpers should be an area of dominance against a wobbly Russian operation.

WIDE ANGLE

For a variety of reasons - nasty weather and ferocious, patriotic defence chief among them - it didn't happen for the Irish backline against America and the cup rugby imperatives of facing Australia meant a free-flowing game was always unlikely.

However, tomorrow provides a gilt-edged opportunity for Alan Gaffney's attacking work to bear fruit. It is an exciting backline and one that should profit from plentiful possession with Ronan O'Gara's passing skills, Keith Earls stepping ability and the hard running of the back three certain to hurt a Russian side who (to borrow the stereotype for smaller nations in most sports) have a tendency to be naive at the back.

Paddy Wallace, finally getting his first World Cup start in his third tournament, tends to excel in these type of games (think Pacific Islands in 2006 and Connacht last month) and provides a useful playmaking option outside O'Gara.

Ireland have potency on the bench also in the shape of Reddan, Sexton and Geordan Murphy.

Again aware of the keen observation of future opponents, Ireland may not show their full hand but even the more rudimentary moves should be too much for the opposition tomorrow and this is the ideal chance to get things flowing before facing a nuts-and-bolts Italian backline.

VERDICT

Not scoring four tries this time is unthinkable. Ultimately, as Kidney pointed out with typical earnestness yesterday, Ireland could lose to Russia and still it would all come down to the Italian match.

The Ireland coach has a remarkable capacity to find an angle, a challenge or a statistical oddity ahead of every encounter and this week it was that Russia managed to score three tries against Italy while Ireland only managed two in February.

Ireland's defence, one intercept try to America aside, has been the best in the tournament and there is no reason to let those standards drop now.

Nor is there any need to get dragged down into any trench warfare with a limited but feisty Russian side, there is too much at stake further on and the last thing Ireland need is a citing or an injury.

It is natural to expect an element of rustiness from players tasting their first action for a number of weeks but the gulf in class is too big and Russia, like all the smaller nations, are compromised by the unsympathetic schedule which favours big first-up performances and subsequent shellackings.

Expect a scrappy opening, a four-try bonus point for Ireland by half-time and declamatory performances from O'Gara, Heaslip, O'Brien, McFadden and Trimble with the Ulster winger a good bet for man of the match. In terms of winning margin, somewhere around the 50-point mark looks likely.

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