IT’S A NEW international season, a Lions year no less. That means a fresh start for all, added impetus. Right?
Declan Kidney will name his squad for the three-week two-Test Guinness Series today and, after experiencing the bleakest nadir of the past decade while touring wintry New Zealand, things can only really get better than a 60-0 defeat.
The importance of bouncing back from that, particularly against one of the big three, cannot be understated. It is imperative for Kidney’s reign going into the Six Nations.
It is over 13 months since Ireland beat Australia in Auckland and, in the 11 Tests since, they have only managed to beat Italy (twice), Russia and Scotland.
As the squad gathered last month, the word filtering out was that Ireland will take precedence over provincial matters this season, while Brian O’Driscoll broke rank somewhat in calling for a more coherent game-plan. Neither should be argued with.
So, aside from the changes which will only become evident when the team takes the field, what can we expect?
From Kidney’s point of view, this is no time for the untried and untested. South Africa and Argentina will bring along big bristling packs, attempting to end the game as a spectacle from the first minute.
With that in mind, the return of Paul O’Connell is a timely one. He and Brian O’Driscoll have been totems of Irish success in recent history and they have not played together since the World Cup quarter-final defeat in Wellington over a year ago.
…and some less so
Calls for fresh blood in the squad will be answered by Kidney pointing to his Wolfhounds squad and men with a low number of caps against their name: Simon Zebo, Kevin McLaughlin, Peter O’Mahony, Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan. However, the latter three of this sextet will only be brought into the firing line for the fixture against Fiji.
Jonathan Sexton certainly used the same opponent to launch his international career to great effect at a time when it felt like he was long overdue. This game is unlikely to have the same intensity as that 2009 night when the RDS hosted a full international and everything clicked perfectly into place for Sexton, a debutant within a lineup containing seven of his Leinster teammates.
On the flip-side, as the game will not have the pressures of a full international for Kidney, he will be free to experiment with players he evidently has not yet trusted on the biggest stage.
One new face that really, really could (and should) make it into the first Test squad is Leinster’s soon-to-be-qualified hooker. Richardt Strauss has long held a desire to join his teammates in the Ireland set-up and from November 4 (six short days before the first Test) he will eligible to do so.
Who better than Richardt to lock horns with his cousin, Springbok hooker Adriaan Strauss?
The former Free State Cheetah has been in excellent form this season and was the central tenet of the eastern province’s most impressive performance of the season, against Munster.
Like Madigan, Paul Marshall is still waiting on his first international call-up. Unlike Madigan, his time is running out.
If Kidney is interested in taking a minor risk in the number nine shirt to pick the island’s form player in that position, then we’ve seen nothing to believe that Marshall will let him down.
At 27, Marshall is an experienced operator with youthful exuberance. He was the fulcrum for six of Ulster’s seven straight wins this season – and being replaced by Ruan Pienaar is hardly cause to be ashamed. In that time he has lubricated the development of Paddy Jackson with flawless service while his astounding acceleration from a standing start punishes defenders who dare to drift away from the side of the ruck.
Jackson’s day will come in an Ireland jersey, Marshall must start in tandem with Madigan against Fiji in Limerick.
This selection will prove telling
If James Downey is selected it will tell us a lot about the IRFU’s attitude to players based overseas. The Munster centre was playing the best rugby of his life 18 months ago, reaching a Heineken Cup and Premiership final in the process, and never got a look in.
Gordon D’Arcy showed enough breakdown skill in Llanelli to earn a recall to the engine room, but Kidney may well welcome a man of Downey’s bulk from the bench against such physically imposing opponents.
If he is not selected, then it’s great news for Fergus McFadden or Keith Earls, either of whom just might add the shake-up needed in the back-line.