World Cup Warm-up: Big guns return to face French
Ireland have named a much-changed and significantly stronger side for tomorrow night’s meeting with France in Bordeaux (7.45pm).
Having seen his mixture of Probables and Possibles go down 10-6 to Scotland at Murrayfield last Saturday, coach Declan Kidney has chosen a team which includes a number of those expected to be on World Cup duty next month.
Out go last weekend’s front three forwards — Tom Court, Sean Cronin and Tony Buckley — and in come Cian Healy and his Leinster colleague Mike Ross on the loose and tight head sides respectively.
They prop Ulster’s Rory Best in what was Ireland’s first-choice front row last season.
Leo Cullen is the only member of last weekend’s front five retained in the position he occupied in Edinburgh.
Once again, in Brian O’Driscoll’s absence, Cullen captains the side from lock, where he has a new partner, Donncha O’Callaghan who returns to the engine-room.
Ireland are expecting a bruising battle against the big, hard French pack and have selected accordingly.
O’Callaghan’s recall sees Donnacha Ryan switch from lock to the blindside flank where he takes over from Mike McCarthy who made his debut last weekend.
Sean O’Brien starts at seven, with Denis Leamy the only member of the loose forwards who faced the Scots to have been retained. Once again he wears the No 8 jersey.
Immediately behind the scrum, half-backs Tomas O’Leary and Jonathan Sexton make way for Eoin Reddan and Ronan O’Gara.
Beyond that pair, Paddy Wallace continues at inside-centre where his partner on this occasion is Keith Earls.
Wallace’s retention augurs well for his prospects of a place on the plane for New Zealand.
Earls’s inclusion sees Fergus McFadden join the bench as one of three replacement backs, the others being Reddan’s understudy, Conor Murray, the uncapped 22-year-old from Munster, and Felix Jones who covers the back three positions.
If, as is probable, McFadden is given a run, that could see O’Gara substituted and Wallace moving to fly-half. Such a move would underline Kidney’s commitment to the Ulsterman whose ability to play in two positions is something the coach values greatly.
The news that Gordon D’Arcy is making progress in his fitness battle and O’Driscoll is expected to be fit to face France in the return match at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium tomorrow week (August 20) should give Wallace and Earls extra incentive.
The back three are retained en masse, with Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald continuing at 15, 14 and 11 respectively. They too will be eager to impress in view of the fact that Geordan Murphy and Tommy Bowe are closing in.
It is a strong looking Irish bench with seasoned Munster warriors Jerry Flannery and Paul O’Connell covering at hooker and lock respectively, while Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip will be chomping at the bit to join the back row.
“We need to up our performance from last week. We know that we need to hang onto the ball a little bit longer.
“We need to be probably not as excited in trying things as we were last week and just sometimes being a little more patient in holding onto it,” Kidney said.