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Sunday 17 December 2017

Bowe central to defence

Move inside can lift heavy weight off Earls as Kidney sweats over Leinster pair

IRELAND coach Declan Kidney is not one to tinker with his team, especially after a comprehensive five-try win over Italy, unless, of course, he is forced into it.

The Corkman may just have to sweat it out for most of the week as full-back Robert Kearney (groin), centre Gordon D'Arcy (shoulder), prop Cian Healy (jaw) and flanker Sean O'Brien (ankle) attempt to prove their fitness for France in the Six Nations on Sunday.

It would appear that Ireland's best back on current form, Kearney, and the irreplaceable Healy are the two causing most concern.

This could bring Gavin Duffy into the frame at full-back or force a reshuffle with Keith Earls, activate Tom Court at loose-head, Fergus McFadden at centre and Peter O'Mahony at flanker.

Assuming the best prognosis for the moment, Kidney will probably start the same side in France. He is more likely to look to the versatility of his frontline players than to those that are next in line. For instance, he seems content to select Donncha O'Callaghan ahead of Donnacha Ryan.

However, he has shown signs of flexibility in moving Jonathan Sexton to inside centre when springing Ronan O'Gara from the bench for Gordon D'Arcy, not for the first time, in the 70th minute on Saturday.

More significantly, in the long term, Kidney transferred Tommy Bowe from wing to centre when Fergus McFadden replaced Keith Earls in the 68th minute.

In a land not so far away last Thursday, it was interesting to see Clongowes Wood College openside Stephen Keelan standing in the scrum-half slot at scrum time with his nine, Conor McQuaid, packing down on the openside in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup quarter-final. It was an interesting idea that worked well with the limited amount of scrummaging allowed at that level. It made sense. A seven is a natural pest to any scrum-half trying to clear ball away from the base.

Better again, Keelan was located closer to the Castleknock fly-half, Robert Troy, without the binding law keeping him tied to the scrum. In other words, bright coaches, like Clongowes' Noel McNamara, can manipulate the positions and rules of the game to suit the players at their disposal.

In the same way, Kidney should not think twice about moving Bowe to outside centre when Ireland are defending to combat France's lynchpin attacker and most powerful gain-line breaker, Aurelien Rougerie, at Stade de France on Sunday.

England's Manu Tuilagi showed Kidney that Keith Earls simply does not have the beef to confront the monsters that roam international midfields in the World Cup warm-up at the Aviva Stadium last August.

It is not that Earls is not willing and able to go in where it hurts most, it is just his natural instincts and special talents are almost exclusively reserved for attack, not defence.

If Earls does not move into perfect position on Rougerie in the tackle, he is going to either get brushed aside like he did against Tuilagi or simply head-on steamrollered like Gordon D'Arcy was by Rougerie when he set up the try for Maxime Medard that killed Ireland in the Six Nations at the Aviva last season.

A small man, like Earls - he is 5'11" and 14 stone - cannot afford to sit back on his heels in readiness for a large man like Rougerie at 6'4" and 16ƒ stones.

The combination of power and momentum are too much to handle when you are not able to explode into the tackle. Ireland's third highest try-scorer Bowe can afford, at 6'3" and over 15 stones, to be technically imperfect and still survive the contact.

Earls has to get everything right to be alright in that situation.

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