Each week, Balls.ie will be asking its newly-appointed rugby panel about the most pressing questions that lie at the heart of Irish rugby. Decimated by injuries and in need of a big result on the back of the Kiwi tour and the upcoming World Cup draw, we asked the panel who Declan Kidney needs to start to get a result against the Boks on Sunday week.
Ulster Fan Paddy Logan's XV:
Jones, Bowe, Cave, D’Arcy, Trimble, Sexton, Marshall, Healy, Strauss, Ross, McCarthy, O’Connell, Ferris, Heaslip, Henry
At fullback, the loss of Bob has traumatised the selectors to the extent that they have gone quite mad. Given that no one has yet located Jared Payne’s Irish granny, Jones should start because he’s – er – a full-back. If Deccie thinks he lacks game time he should grow a pair and give Henshaw a run. 14 is where Tommy Bowe belongs although he would let no one down if selected at 15. Darren Cave should start at centre. Of course I’m biased. I suspect that if Earls had been fit and playing alongside Laulala/Downey he would have got the nod.
I would have gone for Dave McSharry at 12 if BOD had been fit but a midfield pairing of Cave and Dave would look far too callow. Consequently, Gordon D’Arcy gets the nod and one hopes he can reproduce his Leinster magic rather than his recent Irish dross. A tough call on McFadden who looks at his best at 12. At 11, what Andrew Trimble. cedes to Simon Zebo in excitement and kicking prowess, he more than makes up for with his brutal defence (ask Byron McGuigan or Nic Cudd). I’d start with Trimble (if for no other reason than it will encourage Mrs L to watch) and bring the Munster speedster on in the last quarter when things open up. [Recent performances have confirmed this in spades]. Johnny Sexton is a great 10 and front runner for the Lions. Time for Deccie to tell him so and stop messing with his mind. Paddy Jackson to deputise. Munster fans will protest. I bow to no one in my adulation of the Cork legend but it’s time to move on.
At scrum-half, the exam question was ‘who is the best available?’ On current form it’s Marshall, who really shouldn’t be punished for playing for the same province as Pienaar. Given that this will never happen, Reddan should start ahead of Murray despite the Cork pivot’s vastly improved performances in recent weeks. Jamie Heaslip has looked much closer to his best form against the Scarlets. Worryingly, there really aren’t any alternatives beyond Roger Wilson who has clearly upset Deccie. At seven, Shane Jennings has been in magnificent form (Leinster’s stand-out player so far this season) but Chris Henry’s consistency over the last 18 months demands his inclusion. O’Mahoney ain’t a 7. Stevie Ferris will start at 6, god-willing. If his back is still crook, I’d play Henderson but suspect that Deccie will play O’Mahony.
Until the force of nature that is POC returned, McCarthy was Ireland’s form lock. Ryan a more likely Deccie selection although he may still go with DOC! Mike Ross is the only player guaranteed 160 mins of rugby against the Boks and Pumas. So essential to Irish success that it isn’t funny. Deccie Fitz needs to get fit so we can have a half-decent reserve. Could the inclusion of Bent change all this? Scouting reports suggest so but I haven’t a clue. Rory Best. Brilliant on a difficult night at Scotstoun. Richardt Strauss the man in possession at Leinster so I’d go with him. Tremendous in the loose, his darts aren’t quite as good as Rory’s. Cronin is a tremendous impact sub.Court has been tidy at scrum time and busy in the loose but Cian Healy is world class. Kilcoyne has been really impressive, so the left side of the scrum appears to be much less cause for concern.
I think that Kidney’s team will be: Bowe, Trimble, Earls, D’Arcy, Zebo, Sexton, Murray (cue wailing and gnashing of teeth), Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ryan, O’Connell, Ferris, O’Mahony, Heaslip.
Connacht fan Gavin Grace's XV:
Jones, Bowe, Earls, McFadden, Zebo, Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ryan, O'Connell, Ferris, O'Mahony, Heaslip.
There are very few coaches in the top level of world sport who would make virtually no changes in the aftermath of one of their side's worst losses in living memory. Fewer again are the coaches who would be perfectly right to do so, but I for one feel that is the case with Declan Kidney.
There are problems with the Irish rugby team, with more looming on the horizon, but now is not the time for wholesale change. Not yet. With the World Cup draw only a matter of weeks away, and a top-eight placing vital to avoid a more difficult pool, Kidney needs a win - and that's before the any job pressures are taken into account. Even though they shipped 60 points to the All Blacks in Hamilton, his only choice is to retain many of those who performed poorly that day, or at least those who are able to line out.
Who else would you trust to start at prop but Cian Healy and Mike Ross? I'm not sold on Michael Bent just yet. Rory Best's absence leaves us bereft at hooker, and as a pretty experienced debutante, Richardt Strauss is the most suitable replacement. Paul O'Connell's experience means he's still one of the first names on the team sheet, where he should be joined by Donncha Ryan, even if he may have played a lot of rugby in the back row this season. Jamie Heaslip (despite a drop-off on his form of 2009) and Stephen Ferris have to start in the back row and should be joined by Peter O'Mahony. Ryan's inclusion allows for limited flexibility here - Connacht's Mike McCarthy would then be a real option off the bench, a role he can excel in.
Eoin Reddan gets my nod at scrum-half, if only for his relationship with Johnny Sexton, but the rest of the backline is a worry, especially without Brian O'Driscoll. Keith Earls says he wants to be a centre - let's give him that chance, outside Fergus McFadden in what may be a first real look at our long-term 12-13 pairing.
The big remaining question then comes at full-back, where I would go for Earls if BOD was fit. We know Kidney is looking at starting Tommy Bowe at full-back, but he's too good a winger to play out of position, so I'd go for Felix Jones and hope he lasts. Zebo nips in ahead of Trimble to take the berth opposite Bowe on the wing.
It's not an adventurous selection, but in many ways the coach's hand is being forced.
Where I would like to see more of a change is on the training pitch. It's good to see Tiernan O'Halloran, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and more get a training call-up, but why not a dozen more? I'll part-fund a mini-bus to go from Connacht with Denis Buckley, Dave McSharry, Eoin Griffin and Robbie Henshaw on board, and there are as many candidates at the other provinces too. Some of those players may be our future, others not, but there's only one way to find out.
Leinster Fan Andy McGeady's XV:
Earls, Bowe, McFadden, D’Arcy, Zebo, Sexton, Reddan, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ryan, O’Connell, Ferris, Henry, Heaslip
Bench: Fitzpatrick, Cronin, Tom Court, McLoughlin, O’Mahony, Trimble, Marshall, O’Gara
No Brian O'Driscoll, no Rory Best; in the face of the loss of two such senior men, my Ireland team would play it relatively safe in many areas.
In the pack, I'd leave the meddling to a minimum by putting Strauss straight into the front row alongside his Leinster colleagues. Donnacha Ryan should start at lock and Chris Henry should play at seven to provide some balance to the back row.
Where the backline is concerned, it begins with the Leinster halfback partnership of Reddan and Sexton. In O'Driscoll's absence Gordon D'arcy becomes a must-start in the centre with the only debate being which of McFadden or Earls should slot in beside him. For me, it's a no-brainer to put D'arcy's provincial teammate in there and use Earls at full back. Tommy Bowe is an automatic selection on the right wing and, although I'm not his biggest fan, the infectious confidence that Simon Zebo's game currently displays should be rewarded with a start on the left.
On the bench I'd have Kevin McLoughlin in reserve to cover both second row and blind side with Peter O'Mahony providing cover for all three back row positions. In the front row Tom Court is a perfectly adequate loose head and at tight head I'd pick Declan Fitzpatrick ahead of Michael Bent, rewarding the former's performances on the tour to New Zealand while giving the latter a little more time to tour Ireland. In the backs, the versatility of McFadden, Bowe and Earls allow me to pick Trimble on the bench to join Paul Marshall, now that he's finally in the squad, and a thoroughly fitness-tested Ronan O'Gara.
What do I think Declan Kidney will do? Kidney has long given the distinct impression that he regards Earls as a potentially great outside centre; nobody could be too surprised if Kidney were to take this opportunity to slot in Earls outside D'arcy, play McFadden or Trimble on the wing and move Tommy Bowe to full back, a role he has never fulfilled with anything approaching regularity at the professional level.
Kidney's starting XV will probably have Conor Murray at scrum half and Peter O'Mahony at open side wing forward. I'd also put a decent wager on him starting Donncha O'Callaghan alongside Paul O'Connell in the second row and possibly even Sean Cronin ahead of Richardt Strauss because of the unquantifiable "debutante" element.
On the bench he might well go for the Irish-passport-holding Michael Bent at tight head, one of the Donn(a)chas, Chris Henry and possibly an extra back row in the shape of Kevin McLoughlin, Mike McCarthy or even Iain Henderson taking the place of a third back. Reddan and ROG will complete his bench.
Munster fan Ronan Murphy’s XV
Bowe, Trimble, Earls, D’Arcy, Zebo, Sexton, Murray, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Tuohy, O’Connell, Ferris, Henry, Heaslip
Bench- Kilcoyne, Cronin, Fitzpatrick, Ryan, O'Mahony, Marshall, Jackson, McFadden
It may seem strange coming from a Munster fan but I've packed my proposed squad with grade-A Ulster beef. The Springboks are bringing a beastly squad, as ever, and to combat that, I've gone for the heftiest (sorry Big Dev) of the in-form players. Plenty of positions aren't really up for debate in this squad; the props, blindside, No. 8, outhalf, (fitness permitting) but there's still scope for plenty of new faces to be involved.
With Rory Best ruled out Richardt Strauss is now in line to make his starting test debut. I like the balance of a Touhy/O'Connell combination and it echoes their most effective provincial partnerships with Muller and O'Callaghan, respectively. In Sean O'Brien's absence Chris Henry is our most impressive openside. Conor Murray's physicality will be important early on but it would be great to get Paul Marshall in as the game breaks up. With O'Driscoll ruled out the natural selection will be to revert to the D'Arcy/Earls partnership that worked well in the Six Nations. We saw how badly D'Arcy was missed in the third test in New Zealand, and Ireland and Leinster have yet to seriously address replacing him at 12. Keith Earls will be delighted to get another start in his preferred position and was in flying form before his recent injury. Simon Zebo has had a strong start to the season and he and Andrew Trimble should take the wings. In the absence of a front-line fullback, and the necessity to move Earls to outside centre, it seems that Tommy Bowe's run out out at 15 in Wales last Friday will come in very handy.
It's a stretch to think Kidney will throw Dave Kilcoyne in and, even though he's been standing up to everything thats being thrown at him this season, it is probably a step too far and Tom Court will get another cap from the bench. Declan Fitzpatrick impressed in New Zealand and if he stays fit is next in line to Mike Ross on the tighthead side of the scrum. Sean Cronin will have to continue to deputise for provincial teammate Strauss. South Africa will have a very inexperienced flyhalf on their bench in Elton Jantjies and while Kidney will favor the old dog in O'Gara, this should be an opportunity to involve Paddy Jackson. Versatility and experience means Fergus McFadden gets my shout for the last bench place, but with the loss of Rob Kearney and the further disruption of BOD's injury it's a pity that a genuine fullback like Felix Jones or Robbie Henshaw aren't even involved in the squad.
P.S. Who wouldn't enjoy the soap operas of Paul Marshall and Ruan Pienaar going mano-a-mano at scrum-half and Ricardt Strauss making his Test debut against his native land?
For more rugby musings, follow our panel, Andy McGeady, Paddy Logan, Gavin Grace and Ronan Murphy on Twitter.