Friday 18 January 2019

Leinster's influence can linger

Injuries have simplified hard decisions facing coach Kidney, a blessing in disguise perhaps

Normally at the start of a competition with this number of injuries the excuses would be flowing thick and fast.

This is pretty much an Irish condition and one Declan Kidney has used to great effect. And I know that people get frustrated by this display of 'the poor mouth', the ability to quell any expectation of success at the outset.

And yet it seems different somehow this time around. In meeting him this week Kidney didn't mention the injuries at all and there was none of his usual evasion.

Of course he couldn't resist a 'one game at a time' line but I got the impression that Kidney seems relaxed with the course of events.

And that is pretty much unchartered territory.

My belief is that the raft of injuries have, instead of sinking him into a hole of depression, liberated him from having to make a load of difficult changes.

This isn't weakness on his part, rather a reflection on the loyalty that is the cornerstone of the Kidney Way, and in many ways, the Irish way.

There is a huge respect in the country for all the work and success the team of the last 10 years have offered Ireland.

Hand in hand with that pride has been the recognition that some of these guys are at the end of the road.

This is uncomfortable in an individual's case but when there is a host of players it can be downright unnerving.

When are the changes to come and does sentiment colour that decision? With a full squad this poses a huge problem for Kidney. But shorn of eight or nine regular starters these calls are being made for him.

And in many ways this suits the cause, as Ireland desperately need these changes to come now.

There are eight changes since the Grand Slam team of 2009 and of those left you would say that only Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Paul O'Connell are assured of their places when the walking wounded come back.

The injuries have opened up the door to seeing young players under championship conditions.

Too often when new players are drafted in they are against a lower tier nation and, whereas it is great to have blooded them to a degree, it is not a sufficient enough litmus test for them to be trusted fully.


But tomorrow against Italy is the big time. Italy's first game of the season is always targeted as their best chance of a win.

They throw all their eggs into this game. This is white-hot, attritional Six Nations fare.

A big game here for some of Ireland's new recruits goes a long way to showing that they can perform at this level.

And suddenly the experience card for some of the old stalwarts starts to fray at the edges.

There is a huge opportunity for change in the offing and if the players and Kidney grasp it, Ireland will be in a much stronger state at the end of this championship and looking forward to the World Cup.

I, like most, have got caught up with all the hype that has surrounded Leinster this year.

It has been impossible not to as they have played a brand that is irresistible to watch. They are the corner stone of this team, a moving away from the Munster dominance of the last decade.

Theirs is a less conservative brand, a brand that is beautiful to watch but carried with it a lot of risk in past interpretations of the laws.

The game has changed where continuous kicking is a liability against top teams and ball carrying is at a premium. Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy have been instrumental in this change of tempo.

It is key to have forwards from the different rows willing to carry the ball at pace.

This is a team of mobility and speed, youth and experience. There are reservations and they all surround the set-piece, an area of strength for the last decade.

But not everything has to be right tomorrow. A tight scrum, never mind a domineering one, will be sufficient. The lack of height in the back row limits the lineout options and O'Connell will need all his lineout nous to help Rory Best find his jumpers.

These issues are not insurmountable. And so I can't help feeling pretty excited by this team.

I believe this will be a very tight championship and if the set piece holds up, I think it can be Ireland's.

And rather than bemoan the injury list I am looking forward to seeing Tommy Bowe, Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris fight their way back in to the team.

And suddenly this side looks like a serious prospect again and Kidney's demeanor makes more sense.

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