Everything to play for
August 16, 2011
Kidney has much to ponder before naming his final 30-man World Cup squad © Getty Images
He may have lost the first two of his four World Cup warm-up matches but Ireland coach Declan Kidney will be relatively content with how preparations for New Zealand 2011 are going.
Most importantly, no significant injuries have been sustained (although there will be frantic wood-touching taking place ahead of what are certain to be physical encounters with France and England at Lansdowne Road over the next two weekends) and the returning injured - Tomas O'Leary, Jerry Flannery and Rob Kearney - have been reintegrated with no major mishaps.
Secondly, while the performances in defeat to an extremely limited Scotland side and somewhat fitful French outfit have been far from compelling, they have been perfectly adequate when you factor in their early season nature together with the understrength selection in Edinburgh and the difficulty of facing France in a Bordeaux cauldron.
Thirdly, and most encouragingly, there have been players holding up their hands for inclusion in the 30-man squad to be announced next week. Chief among them is scrum-half Conor Murray.
Over the last 25 years, it is hard to think of any other player who has come through the ranks so swiftly and successfully as Murray. The likes of Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls were being talked up for years before they made it onto the international scene and it was always a case of 'when' rather than 'if' they would gain Test recognition.
Murray was a fringe player at Munster at the start of last season but since breaking into Tony McGahan's side earlier this year, he has been the form scrum-half in Irish rugby and must now be a genuine contender not just to make the plane but also for a starting spot in New Zealand.
Coming off the bench to make his debut against France, there were no indications of the nerves that normally accompany such occasions and his wristy pass, physicality and calm control were hugely impressive.
Another to stand out over the past two weekends is Murray's club colleague Donnacha Ryan who is auditioning for the second row/back-row slot in Kidney's panel. The Tipperary man is clearly more comfortable in the second row and put in a good shift there against the giant Scottish pair of Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray but, playing blindside in Bordeaux, Ryan was also impressively committed in the tackle and is now the front-runner for the utility forward slot ahead of Kevin McLaughlin and Mike McCarthy - although the latter two deserve more opportunity to state their case.
Felix Jones, also from Munster, is making a typically powerful run up the rails. Having recovered from a career-threatening neck injury, Jones has enjoyed an excellent 2011 and did not look out of place when elevated to the international stage. That is no guarantee of inclusion, as Ireland have strong options in the outside backs and Kearney, Earls, Tommy Bowe and the impressive Andrew Trimble look to be nailed down for places in the squad.
That leaves Luke Fitzgerald, who has not been at his best in recent times with pundits saying that his form does not merit selection for the final 30. However, Fitzgerald is a class act and has shown enough towards the end of last season for Leinster and against Scotland and France to suggest that abandoning him in Ireland would be rash removal of a world-class game-changer. In short, he is too good to leave at home.
The main concerns for Kidney centre on the role of Paddy Wallace and the doubts surrounding his back-up props. Wallace has long been a Kidney favourite, dating back to their time working together on Ireland's successful U19 World Cup campaign in 1998 and he is pencilled in as centre cover and as third-choice out-half behind Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton.
However, Wallace has been exposed at 12 too often for comfort and, if Kidney were prepared to take a punt on his two out-halves remaining injury-free (with the option of flying out Wallace if required), it would free up a berth for another three-quarter.
The scrum is a greater worry. Healy and Mike Ross have provided Ireland with a solid platform this year but, behind them, Tony Buckley and Tom Court have had their difficulties and, if something should happen Ross, in particular, the consequences could be disastrous is a tight World Cup tussle when penalties could decide the outcome.
John Hayes is available but has never been known as a destructive scrummager and, at 37, is at age when most players would be two or three years into retirement. It adds to the regret that Jamie Hagan, the powerful tight-head who has left Connacht to join Leinster, has not had more time to prove himself for the Dubliner, while not the finished article, has come on massively over the past two seasons, in loose and tight.
It is safe to assume that the ever meticulous Kidney knows the majority of his starting team to face Australia next month but the few positions up for debate make the next two weeks particularly intriguing and home games against France and England constitute a worthy test of this side's readiness and ambition.
The results of these warm-up matches may not be of paramount importance but, under the umbrella of not repeating the mistakes of four years ago, there is everything to play for.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures