Declan Kidney looking to spark Six Nations evolution
It was encouraging to hear Ireland coach Declan Kidney speak so earnestly this week about the need to evolve post-World Cup.
Ireland's scintillating progress through the pool stages, headlined by the win over Australia, ensured there would be no 2007-style evisceration of players or coaches in the aftermath. However, the nature of the quarter-final defeat in Wellington, when Kidney's men were blown away by the vibrancy and fluency of the Welsh, stressed the overwhelming need to kick on.
Backs coach Alan Gaffney has departed and Les Kiss is charged with bringing his innovation to bear on attack as well as defence. This double-jobbing brief is not unique in Kidney coaching units, and Tony McGahan's dual assistant role on Munster's surge to the Heineken Cup title in 2008 provides positive precedent.
With this backdrop, while there were many things to take satisfaction from at the World Cup, Kidney was definite about the need for improvement in this Six Nations, dismissing the notion that it would simply be a case of trying to replicate what worked against Australia and Italy.
"We knew from the Wales match that there are some areas of defence that we have to tighten up, that was most unlike us, but we have also been looking to broaden the attacking options," said Kidney.
"You can't pre-determine plays based on where you are, decisions have to be made on the pitch. When you are a ball carrier, you should have at least two if not three options for leaving the ball off. We have worked on that and on our awareness of that."
Good to hear, but that is not to say we should anticipate a gung-ho approach when Ireland run out for their Welsh rematch on Sunday, far from it. The World Cup rankings prerogative is one immediate reason why not but what we should expect is a more nuanced attacking strategy than what was achieved under Gaffney.
It is here that evolution will occur. It was never going to happen with an England-style selection overhaul and, when it came to selecting the side for Sunday, three areas stood out from the rest -- midfield, second-row and out-half.
In each case, the candidates' selection depended on the degree to which this attacking departure will be pursued -- a choice between the more pragmatic and the less predictable.
The Ronan O'Gara/Jonathan Sexton saga may now be dog-eared but that does not render it any less compelling. Sexton's talent is irresistible but O'Gara's refusal to go quietly after the Leinster man's breakthrough in 2009 is a remarkable example of dedication, skill and determination.
He is in his mid-30s now, but O'Gara won the battle hands down at the World Cup and his form for Munster on his return has been extremely persuasive. Sexton's has been none too shabby either and, while the Leinster man continues to bring the superior running threat and greater physicality in defence, the issue is whether he can do what O'Gara does best -- control territory and make the most of point-scoring chances.
Sexton has generally been more comfortable in blue than in green, certainly off the place-kicking tee, and it has been regularly suggested that he needs O'Gara to retire before he can truly flourish for Ireland. However, it is not O'Gara's problem if his presence inhibits his rival's mental surety and it is up to Sexton to get his head around this issue if he is to nail down the No 10 jersey for good.
Donnacha Ryan has had a productive few months. After impressing as back-up at the World Cup, the Nenagh man forced his way into the Munster second-row next to Paul O'Connell ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan and justified his inclusion. Rugged enough to do the coalface duties and decent in the line-out, Ryan's greatest quality is his mobility in the loose, honed in the back-row, where he has recently been displaying some subtle ball skills.
However, O'Callaghan is still a major presence and has been playing well, albeit predominantly off the bench. He is a defensive favourite of Kiss, secure in the line-out and reckoned to be the better scrummager.
The centre selection was always going to have major implications for the wing berths. Keith Earls showed lethal finishing skills on the left wing at the World Cup and that is where he looks best suited. Andrew Trimble has been on fire out wide for Ulster, although on the right touchline, while Earls has been playing at 13 for Munster, mixing the excellent with the mediocre.
Fergus McFadden is the best defensive midfielder, which is invaluable against the hard-running Welsh midfield, and has the pace and evasion to do damage in attack.
Tommy Bowe would bring a spark to midfield but the really radical selection would be to use Sexton there. The St Mary's man is perfectly suited to the centre -- a secondary kicking option, superb tackler, powerful runner and excellent distributor.
The Six Nations is a slog, an arduous campaign where coaches need to maximise the talent at their disposal and, with O'Gara performing arguably as well as he has ever done through a storied career, getting both playmakers on the park is a tantalising prospect.
Brian O'Driscoll's absence has placed an emphasis on adjustment and we will see how Kidney approaches the peculiar challenges. But after the disappointment of last year's might-have-been experience in New Zealand, it is heartening to know evolution is on the table.