Final pieces for World Cup jigsaw almost in place
So Triple Crown 2010 or World Cup 2011? You make your call and take your chance.
That is, in most simplistic terms, the decision for Declan Kidney ahead of the two remaining games in this Six Nations championship. Realism v idealism — we would of course prefer the latter but sometimes, and for Irish rugby most every time, needs must.
Even before the Grand Slam party had begun at the Mansion House less than twenty-four hours post Cardiff we knew that achievement would be almost impossible to replicate.
But three games in and despite being well beaten in Paris the reality is of an Irish side on the cusp of Triple Crown (fifth in seven years) and with it Six Nations runner-up to the near unstoppable French.
As comedowns go that would be as gentle as it gets and yet leave us still in the right frame for a genuine lash at that winning test objective in the two match Antipodean series set for down under in June.
So on the simple premise of one step at a time and were the call mine beating Wales on Saturday would represent the be-all and end-all at this stage in the march towards New Zealand 2011. Much of what was lost in Paris was re-established at Twickenham, not least in terms of winning momentum and collective confidence.
The substance to the French defeat left little room for doubt as to the jump when facing any one of the southern hemisphere three or Les Bleus.
The most immediate objective ahead of the world assembly in the land of the long white cloud is staying at the head of the chasing posse and only victory in the two remaining games will ensure that.
Therefore on the assumption that Brian O'Driscoll is fit and available (and few if any mend better) it would make for two possible areas in need of discussion, if not necessarily change, to face the Welsh.
Rob Kearney's recuperation will make for a straight call between the Leinster man and Geordan Murphy in the last line. Logic would seem to dictate Kearney retake the No 15 shirt but based on form (or lack of same) against Italy and France I'm not so sure it's as simple as that. Here I do believe the head coach has a difficult call to make. Murphy did all that was asked when stepping into the full back breach against the English.
It was a big step given the previous 15 months out of the test arena, never mind four months laid up with injury, yet he brought that trademark air of authority and adventure to the last line of defence and counter attack. I have little doubt it is the type of decision Kidney craves in every position but none the easier nevertheless. While I suspect Kearney will return my gut feeling would be to run with Murphy on the basis that re-selection would do his confidence the world of good benefiting both players (putting it up to Kearney) and the squad in the longer term yet not weakening the team or the likely plan of action against the Welsh one iota.
The second area is that of tight head prop. John Hayes continues as the main man but the need for copper-fastened back up is probably greater now than it's ever been.
Not for a minute am I suggesting a century of caps the cut-off point , the next World Cup is the Bull's clearly defined target, but whether he still has it in him to make it there is not quite as well mapped. Tony Buckley and Tom Court appear the next two in line and, on most recent form, in that order.
On the basis of potential impact Hayes to Start with Buckley to spring from the bench on the hour seems the most logical way to go and the (front row) route I suspect Kidney will take but here, as at full back, I would break the recent mould and give Buckley his head from the start.
I do not buy into the age old adage of not changing a winning team. If you can improve the starting fifteen or certainly not weaken it but through the process of measured change deepen the squad then surely the most sensible criterion for change is met.
That being the case you bring the players, most particularly those disaffected, with you.
And not a mention in all that of out-half, the selection guaranteed to garner maximum media attention come team announcement later today. Whether it is Ronan O'Gara to start and Jonathan Sexton to come on I trust in Kidney to make the call.
He is best armed with the most relevant and up-to-date information but from this distance, goal-kicking apart, Sexton did most everything right and precious little wrong when stepping up to the pressure plate at Twickenham.
With Eddie O'Sullivan you could take it almost as read that his most favoured fifteen would run out most every time i.e. Girvan Dempsey in like circumstances would return for Murphy. Kidney may choose the same path but his record thus far suggests otherwise.
He tends to widen the parameters and not only when pressed through injury.
The other factor of course is two tough Six Nations tests just seven days apart but here the ‘one game at a time' principle can only apply. Concentrate on the Welsh, and the obvious danger it presents, the possible Scottish Triple Crown decider will then look after itself.
That would make for a Irish XV to face the Welsh along the following lines:
G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), Captain, G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), T Buckley (Munster); D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), J Hayes (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), R Kearney (Leinster).