The derby finish to the season may have presented Irish rugby in a very positive light but it hasn’t done much to clear the muddied waters for Declan Kidney. This is a good thing. Kidney’s mantra borrows from the Spanish manana manana principle: never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. Or in his case, never make a decision until the deadline bell is bursting your eardrums.
So as the Ireland players took off this week to their various holiday destinations, many of them were none the wiser about their chances of making the plane to New Zealand in September. Those who know Kidney will understand that the five games in August will not be solely about warming up the World Cup squad, which won’t be named until ahead of the last of that schedule, against England. Rather it will be about helping him to make his mind up.
Back in the day, when team selection was carried out by a group known as ‘The Big 5,’ the final trial at Lansdowne Road was part of the landscape. The last time I can remember this game paying off for someone was when Garryowen back-rower Paul Hogan did well enough to be picked for his first cap – away to France, in 1992. It would be his first and last.
Typically those who knew they were shoo-ins for the Ireland side would dream up some reason for missing the trial altogether. Some unfortunates would have to take their place in this makey-up match with nondescript jerseys where the Probables had to withstand the challenge of the Possibles. Gripping so it was.
The Magners League final in Limerick at the weekend was the closest we came to a modern day final trial – ie a real one – in that a clatter of players were as concerned with making an impression on Declan Kidney as in picking up a medal.
John Hayes and Marcus Horan were in this category for Munster. And Donnacha Ryan. Felix Jones – who has a touch of the Paula Radcliffes about his running style – is making a late run, helped by the injury problems of both Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy. Even Conor Murray, who started all but two games in the last three months of Munster’s season, is in the shake up thanks to very good form.
For a tired Leinster it was a chance for Fergus McFadden to strengthen his case for World Cup inclusion. He had to bite his lip earlier in the season when Joe Schmidt was picking Luke Fitzgerald ahead of him. This time he stepped in for Gordon D’Arcy and did another good job. He has to be on the plane, regardless of how Kidney wants to split his squad.
And that’s the issue for a bunch of the hopefuls: will the coach run with 14 backs and 16 forwards, or a 13/17 split? As of now he doesn’t know.
If it’s with an extra forward then it will involve an extra prop. Maybe this was all on Horan’s mind when he cleaned Brian O’Driscoll off the ball with a body check that would not have looked out of place in ice hockey. Along with some clueless use of the shoe in the first half, which cost his team a penalty, Horan looked very keen. And not too clever. He should have been binned.
Come August he will, like the others, get further opportunities to look more useful. Between the five Ireland games, and the provinces’ eight pre-season run outs that month, Kidney and his coaches will be chasing their tails about the place trying to keep tabs on everybody. There are enough slots still open to make this a live issue right up to deadline. At which point Kidney will reluctantly take off the earmuffs and press the button.