Declan Kidney must use the Autumn internationals efficiently if he is to continue Ireland’s success into the new season, writes Richard Chambers
The autumn internationals are upon us and represent a welcome respite for the members of Declan Kidney’s 31-man squad. The provinces have endured a middling opening to their Magners League and Heineken Cup campaigns with no province having lived up to expectation levels thus far.
Heineken Cup champions Leinster have found it difficult to recapture the tremendous fluidity that served them so well last year, while Connacht yet again find themselves at the bottom of the league table despite some impressive showings culminating in deserved victories against Cardiff and the Ospreys.
Ulster have faired reasonably well to date partially due to the outstanding halfback partnership of Ian Humphreys and Isaac Boss. Meanwhile, after losing four of their opening eight games, Munster found themselves facing the usual talk of crisis and dressing room rifts, both of these claims swiftly rebuked by Lions captain Paul O’Connell.
Of course the Lions Tour may be liable for some of the problems encountered by the provinces. The largest Irish contingent for a Lions tour in recent years has meant a shortened preseason for many, and new combinations have been blooded as a result. For the most part these have had limited success although the continued development of young players, such as the dynamic Donnacha Ryan and former UCD back-row forward Séan O’Brien in their already crowded respective packs, bodes well for the future.
One factor to the slow starts experienced by Ireland’s Magners League teams has been an unusual number of injuries in key areas. Currently Munster find themselves unable to field a sufficient front row, a mystery ailment to Marcus Horan making him the most prominent absentee. Meanwhile, Leinster’s Rob Kearney, arguably the most striking performer in the Lions tour, has suffered a number of minor setbacks to a recurring hamstring problem.
The upbeat nature of a Declan Kidney training camp will surely bring some much needed positivity to the squad regardless of any issues of form or rustiness. The psychology graduate has proven to be a fine motivator as a coach and he will seek to recapture the buoyancy that typified the Grand Slam campaign.
Facing a youthful Australia – a side with ambitions of a Grand Slam of their own – on 15th November will present Kidney with a multitude of selection dilemmas, not least problems with the props. After being forced to cut Marcus Horan from the 31-man squad for the Australia game, the path has been paved for Cian Healy to make his debut this Sunday in a packed-out Croke Park.
The opportunity to engage these youthful prodigies is a welcome by-product of the form of the habitual provincial XVs, and one that will not be lost on Kidney. Whether it is in the Ireland ‘A’ environment or in the senior squad, the double Heineken Cup-winning coach has proven to be more than willing to alternate his line-ups on occasion, not always making the easy choices but the merited ones.
The chance for the players to rejoin their international teammates will not be lost on this squad who will be eager to concentrate on matters on the field. Listening to criticism laid on the squad by some media elements, you would scarcely believe that members of this team won the Six Nations only eight months ago. Regrouping for tests against Australia, Fiji and the world champion Springboks will benefit them – and potentially the provinces – by extension.