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Kidney Makes Hard Calls

Kidney Makes Hard Calls

Adrian O’Farrell is back to give us his views on the Ireland team and replacements to play New Zealand in the GUINNESS Series 2008. Another exclusive from our very own correspondent.

Declan Kidney has never been one to shirk hard calls and in his first major selection of an Ireland matchday squad, he has not played safe.

In truth, due to the suddenly highly competitive nature of the squad, most calls are so borderline that he cannot be accused of making the wrong call (or possibly right call) regardless of how Saturday’s big game goes.

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The single biggest, bravest call realistically is selecting Tomas O’Leary for his first starting role in an Irish senior jersey.

Not that that is surprising, for it has been clear for some time now that O’Leary would be capped at some stage of a consistently developing career.

The surprise is that his first cap is coming against the All Blacks. And it ios not as if Kidney was short on options as Eoin Reddan has been playing pretty well, if not perhaps as ‘on fire’ as he was through much of last season.

Nevertheless, the general torpor at Wasps has not been doing him many favours.

Of course, we have been down this road before with these two principal players.

When Kidney selected O’Leary ahead of Peter Stringer for the Heineken Cup final last season, it cam as a massive bombshell and a significant deposit of faith in the player by the coach.

That it all turned out for the best gave Kidney a major credit balance in the bank of tough calls.

This selection also sees tight calls go in favour of Rory Best over Jerry Flannery, Alan Quinlan over Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe over Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey over Keith Earls or Geordan Murphy.

However, while Shane Jennings had a convincing display against the Canucks, it would have been very hard to omit David Wallace.

There is great delight too at seeing the redoubtable Quinlan return for this match after such a troubled run of injuries.

For the first time in some time, it can be said that every one of the Irish replacements represents an impact option.

Certainly, having Jennings on the bench, in particular, gives Kidney a fresh hand to play if he finds that Richie McCaw is cleaning up on the deck.

Tony Buckley may have feared the worst when he did not re-emerge for the second half against Canada, but he has previously with Munster shown an ability to add something in the loose when coming on in the second half.

One could argue that, whatever his bravery in the O’Leary selection, Kidney did not follow it through with what would have been the bravest selection of all – Earls at full-back.

Crucially, O’Leary has been around for that bit longer. Earls’ composure last Saturday was remarkable in one so young, but this weekend is an order of an entirely different dimension.

In selecting Earls on the bench, Kidney has omitted Shane Horgan, despite the latter showing a welcome return to form of late.

Earls’ versatility will have helped him here, though the degree of flexibility in this Ireland back-line is bewildering, so Kidney was never going to be short of options.

One texter to a radio programme described the selection of Dempsey ahead of Kearney or Earls at full-back as a ‘damage limitation’ exercise. I disagree.

I think that Ireland are past the point of seeking to limit the scoreline against New Zealand and see the opportunity to create history.

However, in talking to both Brian O’Driscoll and Marcus Horan over the past fortnight, both have made the point that the first thing you must do against them is not let them get away to an early start.

“Sometimes you need to just make yourself hard to beat. We’ve perhaps been too focused on trying to win the game from the off,” O’Driscoll admitted, stressing that the important thing is ‘to be in it with ten minutes to go.’

Certainly, to have any chance, Ireland are going to have to start immeasurably better than the last time we hosted New Zealand in 2005.

On that occasion, Sitiveni Sivivatu made hay and Ireland were 25-0 down at half-time, at which point a gentleman from New Zealand turned around to the Irish supporters and simply asked, ‘any questions?’

Horan still feels that that New Zealand team on that day was the best side he has ever played against. And that was during that period when Graham Henry was mixing and matching his squad!

Since then, Ireland have lost three further times away from home – twice by 11 points and once by 10 – having been right in the game.

That Ireland has shown the ability to compete with them is reflected in the New Zealand selection, which has more than a look of ‘first team’ about it.

In particular, the restoration of Dan Carter to out-half amid a truly awesome looking back-line is the type of thing to potentially give a young tyro such as Luke Fitzgerald the heebie jeebies.

It is the delicious natural rest state of the Irish rugby supporter to be optimistic, I believe (how else would we have survived the 1990s?), and before all encounters against the All Blacks there have been varying degrees of hope that we can gain that first historic victory.

Each occasion feels a little different, but this one a little more so. There is the Kidney factor. There is an almost tangible sense of rejuvenation around the squad.

The competition for places has rarely been so intense in so many positions and there is a sense that it is a squad again as opposed to a team.

A new venue with an extra 30,000 people. If the team can keep it close until the second half, then who knows?

The lungs of 80,000 baying Irish lunatics might just provide that extra couple of percentage points that can create history.

As Horan said: “It’s going to happen someday and you just want to be in that team when it does. The longer it goes on the harder it gets but the sweeter it will be when it does happen.”