ALL OF A sudden, Ireland’s 53-0 November win over Fiji looks relevant.
Last night, a leak of Ireland’s starting 23 spread like bush-fire.
In it sat numbers; eight, nine, 10, 12 and 14 from that effervescent night in Limerick, numbers which can be the foundation for any attacking move.
Yes, Declan Kidney has reportedly opted to twist rather than stick when faced with a big gamble necessitated by injury.
In, we hear, comes Paddy Jackson for Ronan O’Gara and Luke Marshall for the injured Gordon D’Arcy.
And Munster representatives were further hit by their geographical counterweight with the addition of Tom Court’s scrummaging power in place of Cian Healy and not Dave Kilcoyne – who was a welcome choice to serve an apprenticeship from the bench in the opening two games of the Six Nations.
If it’s disappointment for the Munster contingent, then there will be pride swelling in the eastern region as the reported squad includes both Devin Toner and Luke Fitzgerald as options from the bench. While Fitzgerald’s form has been quickly returning to his expected level, Toner’s inclusion can be viewed with a little surprise… mind, when looking for someone to match Richie Gray in the vertical leap he is hard to ignore.
These are brave calls, a far cry from the conservatism which Kidney has become renowned for since putting a Grand Slam on the cabinet.
To demote the long-serving O’Gara, must surely have been the most difficult decision. With a rookie coming into the centre it would have been easy to nod towards O’Gara’s 127 caps and overlook his alarming dip in form.
Easy too, would have been an argument to suggest Jackson’s form did not set enough pulses racing to warrant a promotion and the lines being run by Ian Madigan against a sub-par Treviso were how Ireland could be better served.
Instead, Kidney has made the hard call of selecting a first and second five-eighth pairing (as our provincial coaches would say) without a full cap between them. The proof will be in Murrayfield, but if the lessons of Fiji taught us anything, it is that the unquantifiable power of youthful exuberance should not be underestimated.
Cold, hard stats
Jackson’s place-kicking has been a worrying aspect of his game this season, and the stats bear up the fears with his 75% success rate being the lowest of the four men behind Jonathan Sexton in Ireland’s pecking order.
However, as Les Kiss alluded to yesterday, there is another cold hard stat one could look at – wins. Ulster sit top of the Pro12. And although he may have Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Wallace to shoulder much of the game management and place-kicking burden, Jackson has still shown enough moments of quiet genius on big nights to make us believe that he will survive this baptism of fire.
For sure, he will need his pack to provide a platform, and we won’t be surprised to see Conor Murray, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney to take on a little extra kicking from hand. A nice early nerve-settling penalty around the 22-metre line would be welcome too, but this is a truism for any young out-half not just Jackson.
As we’ve said in these pages before; over 10 absentees mean there can be no such thing as keeping a plan for the future on the back-burner.
We salute Kidney for trusting now in a 21-year-old who could see three World Cups… if the rumours are true.
Reported Ireland XV: R Kearney; C Gilroy, B O’Driscoll, L Marshall, K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray. T Court, R Best, M Ross; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (capt.)