Last week saw Declan Kidney announce a 29-man squad for Ireland’s three-test tour to New Zealand. The initial reaction from many Irish fans has been a repetition of the criticism which greeted Kidney’s Six Nations squad announcement. The introduction of Simon Zebo, Mike Sherry and Declan Fitzpatrick is a welcome move, but the feeling remains that the Irish management have missed the opportunity to expose more young talent to international rugby.
The three uncapped players mentioned above have all benefited from their breakthrough seasons at provincial level. Zebo has as many doubters as admirers, but it’s undeniable that the 22-year-old has evasive attacking talent and finishing prowess. Ulster fans will feel that Craig Gilroy was more deserving, while Leinster supporters have stated the case for Dave Kearney. That’s fair as all three young wingers have been impressive at different stages of the season. How difficult would it have been for Kidney to bring one more player with the squad, thus giving Kearney or Gilroy a genuine taste of what lies ahead for them?
Sherry’s campaign for Munster was halted early on by an ankle injury but he bounced back with intent in 2012. The Limerick man looked confident in all of his 9 starts this season, excepting the difficult night he had against the Ospreys in the PRO12 semi-final. The 23-year-old hooker is very mobile and most importantly, his throwing is generally very competent. With Rory Best and Sean Cronin also set to travel, Sherry’s best hope of game time is the third test at which point the series may already have been decided.
Ulster’s Fitzpatrick is another who has had injury struggles this season, with a neck problem sidelining him for 5 months. However, the tighthead prop has enjoyed a strong finish to the province’s campaign, with solid showings against Leinster, Edinburgh and Munster. His rise to international recognition has been swift. As pointed out by Liam Toland, the 28-year-old is a set-piece specialist who hasn’t shown too much in the loose just yet. But that’s exactly what Ireland want at tighthead right now. Lock out that scrum and you’ll be a hero Declan!
So are there any other new faces? Fitzpatrick’s Ulster team mates Darren Cave and Dan Tuohy have both been chosen to travel to NZ after consistently superb form for their province. Both are previously capped for Ireland, with Cave touring Canada/USA in 2009 and Tuohy coming off the bench twice during the 2010 tour to New Zealand. Tuohy has done more than enough to earn a starting place in the Irish XV to take on the All Blacks in the first test on June 9th, regardless of whether or not Paul O’Connell is fit. Donnacha Ryan will disagree after his Six Nations displays, but Tuohy has been brilliant all season. Kidney’s decision to bring Donncha O’Callaghan is hard to understand, especially with the ever-improving Devin Toner left at home.
25-year-old Cave has earned his place on the plane thanks to genuine improvements in his game this season. He has emerged as one of Ulster’s key players, highlighted by his display in the Heineken Cup final. He will have learned plenty from facing Brian O’Driscoll that day and will be keen to work closely with BOD on tour. Competition in the centre will be fierce, with Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden, O’Driscoll and Cave in contention. Kidney is likely to go with D’Arcy and O’Driscoll for the first test, but a pairing of McFadden and Cave at some stage would not be a surprise after the seasons they’ve had.
In my opinion, one of the major disappointments in Kidney’s squad was the omission of Ian Madigan. Ronan O’Gara is a legend of the game and has made vital contributions for Munster this season, but how much value is there in bringing the 35-year-old to New Zealand? Kidney knows exactly what he can do, and will still be able to do during next season’s Six Nations. Why not bring the highly talented Madigan, emerse him in the international routine and see how he reacts? Obviously an injury to Jonny Sexton would mean pitching Madigan into the deep end, but he has thrived in every challenges laid before him up to this point. Alternatively, why not extend the squad to 30 and include him that way?
There are four AN Other places in the squad being held for Paul O’Connell, Chris Henry, Isaac Boss and Brett Wilkinson, provided the quartet can prove their fitness. The absence of Boss from the Leinster squad for this weekend’s PRO12 final makes him a real doubt (also the knee injury to Sean O’Brien is a concern). Paul Marshall of Ulster will be waiting eagerly should Boss miss out. The Ulster scrumhalf has real spark and would be first-choice at most clubs. The continuing excellence of Ruan Pienaar must be frustrating for Marshall, who had a particularly magnificent spell of form around the turn of the year.
Henry would be gutted to miss this tour after the brilliant performances he’s put in for Ulster. He has adapted well to position of openside despite being more of a natural 6 or 8. He has put his hand up for a starting role against the All Blacks. Like Fitzpatrick, his rise from a player of potential to international level has been swift. The amount of pre-Heineken Cup hype surrounding Henry was testament to that. Connacht’s Wilkinson has had another solid season, and is likely to tour with Tom Court out injured. O’Connell’s recovery is crucial if Ireland are to stand any chance of a first-ever win over the All Blacks.
The squad is picked, and most of us could predict Declan Kidney’s starting XV for the first test with close to 100% accuracy. The hope is that the Ireland coach lets his players off the leash in NZ. Ireland need to take momentum and inspiration from Leinster’s sparkling season, regardless of the result in the PRO12 final. Kidney must encourage his players to really play. A more adventurous, higher-risk game plan could pay off. What have Ireland got to lose? Most fans would predict a 3-0 series win for the All Blacks. In New Zealand, Ireland are viewed as cannon fodder. Hopefully Kidney throws caution to the wind for once and gives his players the freedom to excel. Even if three losses followed, I reckon most Irish rugby supporters would be happy to see some genuine development in Ireland’s playing style. On top of that, if Kidney can expose guys like Sherry, Zebo, Fitzpatrick, Cave and Tuohy to international rugby, then the tour will have been of real benefit.
What’s your take on the Ireland squad? Who would you have liked to see included? Was Zebo the right call over Gilroy and Kearney? Would you have brought Madigan to NZ? Leave a comment with all your views!