With just under three weeks remaining until Ireland’s opening Game in the 2012 Guinness Series, the squad for the November games, which will see Ireland take on South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, will be announced on Wednesday, 24th October.
Declan Kidney is under pressure following the embarrassment of the third test against New Zealand in the summer and anything other than two victories against South Afirca and Argentina will further heap pressure on the Irish coach.
With the season now fully up and running, sportsnewsireland.com examines those that have put their hands up for selection after two rounds of Heineken Cup action.
Mike Ross produced a man of the match performance in Leinster’s win over Llanelli and as evidenced by last season’s scrum disintegration at Twickenham, Ross is an absolutely essential cog for the national team. He is a shoo-in for a starting berth and any Irish fan will be praying that he stays fit for the entire course of the season such is his importance to the cause.
Rory Best continues to remain in pole position for the hooker jersey with Sean Cronin experiencing restricted game time behind the soon to be Irish qualified Richardt Strauss. Best, in all likelihood will start against both South Africa and Argentina with Cronin left to make an impression in the Fiji game. Strauss qualifies for Ireland this month and while the November internationals may be too early for the South African to make his mark, his arrival on the scene gives Declan Kidney another string to his front row bow.
Cian Healy is the incumbent on the loosehead side of the scrum and remains essential to Ireland’s cause not only for his scrummaging but also for his ball carrying abilities which will be particularly important considering Sean O Brien’s long term injury.
The sight of Paul O’Connell rampaging around Thomond Park on Sunday will have been a tonic not only to Munster fans. O’Connell’s importance to the national team is still undiluted and he remains a totemic figure. His absence was keenly felt in New Zealand and for Ireland to have any hope of turning over our Southern Hemisphere rivals, O’Connell is essential.
While POC is guaranteed his place, a certain level of intrigue remains over who will partner him in the second row. Donncha O’Callaghan, his longtime partner appears to have fallen behind Donncha Ryan in the national pecking order and with good reason. While no one could question O’Callaghan’s commitment to the green jersey, his discipline has been questionable over the years and Ryan represents the more athletic, ball carrying threat for November.
The loss of Sean O’Brien through injury is a big blow for Declan Kidney as the Carlow man is a source of vital go forward ball in a pack not dominated by ball carriers. His absence will pile even more pressure on Stephen Ferris to maintain the ludicrously high standards he has maintained for the best part of a year. Jamie Heaslip should retain his number 8 starting berth and O’Brien’s injury may encourage a return to the rampaging ball carrying Heaslip of a couple of seasons ago. Despite Shane Jennings enjoying a superb start to the season with Leinster, Kidney appears to believe the Dubliner’s days as a starting international seven are numbered so Peter O’Mahony will in all likelihood continue his ascent in the world of international rugby.
While Kidney’s biggest selection decisions of the past two years have repeatedly revolved around who will start out half, this trend looks set to be finally drawing to a close. O’Gara, currently sidelined by a hamstring injury and for the first time in a decade, actively involved in a fight for his jersey at Munster, has now fallen behind the level produced by Jonathon Sexton at Leinster. Sexton has often looked a more confident player in blue rather than green and Irish fans will be hopeful that his early Leinster performances this year are carried over to the international arena. If his performances in November are dominant, those at the Aviva will be more than likely looking at a future Lions test out half. This series also represents the chance for Declan Kidney to finally acknowledge Ian Madigan’s superb form for the last year by rewarding him with a start against Fiji.
A greater selection issue concerns who will start inside Sexton with Conor Murray struggling to reach the heights he achieved last year. For an out half who likes to play close to the gain line, speed of service is key and Murray’s displays this year have been characterised by slow releases from the base of rucks. While undoubtedly a better defender that Eoin Reddan, the Leinster man’s understanding with his out half aligned with his quicker delivery mean that come November, Ireland would be better off employing a Leinster half back pairing. Paul Marshall’s excellent form also warrants a mention and the Ulster scrum half has played himself into contention for a possible place on the bench.
With Brian O’Driscoll out of contract at the end of the season, this could be the last time the great man takes part in a November series. While this is an unlikely scenario, the fact remains that O’Driscoll has well and truly entered the twilight of his career. If fit, he is certain to start but the identity of his centre partner remains less clear. Gordon D’arcy, recently returned from injury remains a fine player but if Ireland are seeking to look to the future in this series then it may be time to examine the alternatives.
James Downey has made a promising start to his Munster career and offers the sort of work rate and go forward ball that may prove useful against the behemoth sides likely to be fielded by South Africa and Argentina. Fergus McFadden is also in contention but his versatility may count against him and the Leinster man may have to make do with providing three quarters cover from the bench. Darran Cave has long been touted as a potential international centre and the Ulster player should be involved at some stage of the series.
Rob Kearney will be looking to build on a stellar season last year and against the renowned kicking games of the Springboks and Pumas should be able to draw on his excellence under the high ball. The onus will be on Kearney to provide a counter attacking threat from loose kicks and the full back will be looking to put himself at the forefront of Warren Gatland’s thoughts in a Lions year.
Keith Earls has been injured for the past few weeks but should have no issues being fit for the November tests. While Earls has made it blatantly obvious that he views centre as his best position, he may be forced to make do with a place on the wing. One of Ireland’s most lethal broken field runners, his pace is essential to Ireland and his knack of try scoring should ensure the Munster star at least gets a start on the wing although the development of teammate Simon Zebo, as demonstrated by his superb try against Racing Metro last week, means that competition for back three places has heated up significantly.
The return of Tommy Bowe to Ulster was rightly regarded as a coup by the I.R.F.U and the winger has shown fine form so far this campaign. A favourite of Declan Kidney’s, he looks certain to start and will be hopeful of showcasing his knack of scoring vital tries as he seeks to embark on another Lions tour this summer.
Declan Kidney is not known for wild experimentation meaning a progression is more likely than an overhaul following the mauling by New Zealand. Ireland however must show more ambition with ball in hand if they are to secure a November clean sweep. Performances like in the third test during the summer or the hammering at Twickenham last year will make the calls for Kidney’s departure increase exponentially and could signal the end for Kidney and his coaching staff. Either way, it promises to be a fascinating
Ireland v South Africa AVIVA Stadium, Sat 10th Nov 12 17:30
Ireland XV v Fiji Thomond Park Stadium, Sat 17th Nov 12 17:30
Ireland v Argentina, Sat 24th Nov 12 14:00