WE ARE JUST days away from the announcement of Ireland’s 30-man World Cup squad and everyone is busy second guessing the make up of the team who will lead Ireland’s bid for glory.
It is not a simple case of picking the best 30 players, or indeed selecting the best two players available in each position. If that was the case, then Declan Kidney’s job would be an easy one.
Instead the Irish coach must select a carefully balanced squad that is capable of seeing out the seven matches required to win the tournament.
This may mean picking one or two players who might not exactly be considered front-line internationals right now, while on the other hand leaving at home some of Ireland’s finest and favourites.
This is why there is likely to be a lot of criticism and head-shaking when Kidney announces his final World Cup squad, but consider the following before joining the mob in bashing the Irish coach.
The key men
Key positions dictate the shape of all World Cup squads. If a winger or a flanker goes down injured, a team may be well losing one of their most influential players, but invariably these guys are replaceable, albeit perhaps with an inferior player.
But, when a key position player hits the dirt, coaches visibly age.
Out-half, scrum-half, hooker and prop: these are the positions that ultimately must be overstocked in terms of representation within the squad.
Kidney must have at least three options at out-half, scrum-half and hooker, while he will probably have to bring five props to the land of the long white cloud.
He will hope that he will not have to entrust his fifth-choice prop or his third-choice number 10 in a crunch pool tie, but he has to plan accordingly nonetheless.
Barring disaster, Jonny and ROG will both be going to the World Cup, but who will Deccie pick as his third outhalf? (©INPHO/Morgan Treacy)
Imagine a scenario where Jonathan Sexton tweaks a hamstring and has to miss the games against Italy and Russia. Obviously Ronan O’Gara gets the No. 10 shirt, but what happens should he then be injured or sinbinned during these games? A third option would be required.
Paddy Wallace certainly has his detractors, and you could easily make the case that he is not one of Ireland’s top 30 rugby players, but he is the obvious choice to fill that pivotal third out-half option role.
Of course, Kidney could just bring a third out-and-out No. 10 in the form of either Ian Keatley or Ian Humphreys, but Wallace’s ability to also play at centre will get him the nod.
Kidney is almost certainly going to go with a 13:17 split in terms of backs and forwards, and that limits his options in terms of the attacking talent that he will have at his disposal in New Zealand.
With three number nines and two 10s already onboard – and Paddy Wallace being a sixth — that leaves seven plane seats to fill in the back line.
Captain Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden will complete the centre options leaving just four more spots.
Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls are certs barring injury and Kidney looks to be favouring Rob Kearney as his first-choice full-back going on the warm-up games to date.
Due to the lack of space in the squad, he is likely to select only one specialist full back — with Earls, Bowe and Fitzgerald offering cover — so Geordan Murphy and Felix Jones could be disappointed unless they muster up some magic between now and 22 August.
That leaves one spot to fill in the back line, and that would appear to be between Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has been out of form but his saving grace may well be his versatility and ability to play full-back, centre and wing. This could well be one of Kidney’s toughest calls.
Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald both got game time against Scotland — but will only one of them be on the plane to New Zealand? (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)
The front row
Seventeen forwards may sound like plenty, but in order to cover the specialist front row positions, eight of the spots will be earmarked for men up front.
Barring injuries, the three hookers will be Rory Best, Jerry Flannery and Sean Cronin, and Cian Healy and Mike Ross will have already packed away the suntan lotion.
Marcus Horan is Ireland’s next best loosehead behind Healy, and it is good to see him back to full health again.
Tom Court can play on both sides of the scrum and that alone will guarantee his plane ticket, which means that Tony Buckley and John Hayes are up for one spot. Buckley would appear to offer Kidney the better option as his ball-carrying ability off the bench is a major weapon that Ireland are sure to unleash in New Zealand.
This could well mean that John Hayes’ magnificent Irish career could peter out in one of the underwhelming warm-up matches. It would be a sad end for ‘The Bull’ but such is the cruel nature of sport.
With only nine spots then to cover the second and back rows, Kidney is likely to pick three locks; five out-and-out back rowers; and one player who can play in the second and back row.
Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan will definitely travel, so that means that only one place remains for Leo Cullen or Mick O’Driscoll — unless the Munster man is considered for the utility role, where he would be up against the likes of Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin and Donnacha Ryan. At this point, Ryan is probably the favourite for that particular spot following his abrasive display against France in Bordeaux.
Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace and Sean O’Brien all travel, as does Stephen Ferris if he can prove his fitness between now and August 22nd, although he does have to prove that he can withstand the rigours of a World Cup before earning selection.
Will Stephen Ferris win his race against injury? (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)
One last spot…
With one spot remaining, Denis Leamy, John Muldoon, Shane Jennings and Niall Ronan are the contenders.
The decision rests on whether Kidney wishes to bring a specialist openside or not. Jennings, if fully fit, would get the nod in that instance, although if he wants to cover the entire back row with the last spot then Leamy will probably travel.
And so, players of the calibre of John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Mick O’Driscoll, Denis Leamy, Geordan Murphy and Andrew Trimble could all potentially miss out.
These will be seriously tough calls but there will be a reason for each selection, even if it may not seem so from the first look.
So before criticising Kidney on hearing the make up of the squad, folk should be aware that it is his job to cover all eventualities that may arise during the long and arduous tournament that lies ahead.
They will be hard calls, for sure, but they will also certainly be for the right reasons.