By a distance the biggest call of Declan Kidney’s World Cup squad, to be announced at lunchtime today, is the omission of Tomas O’Leary. Shane Jennings also came up short with his late run to get onto the back row ticket, and John Hayes knew he wouldn’t be included either. But O’Leary?
Kidney gave huge credit to O’Leary’s role in Munster’s second Heineken Cup success, in 2008, and a few months later promptly gave him his first cap in what was Kidney’s second game in charge of Ireland– against New Zealand, in November of that year.
Since then Kidney has rated O’Leary above all others, and went miles out of his way to allow him play his way back to form after injury last season – by picking him in the Six Nations when he had no form to warrant selection in the first place. So Tomas played against Italy and France, and played poorly, and were it not for a freak training ground accident I suspect he would have seen out the Championship.
Then he was back in for this warm-up series and again it hasn’t gone according to plan. Why? Because he has never recaptured the form that brought the Lions selectors to his door in 2009. The combination of missing that tour through injury, and now missing a World Cup on selection, will be horrendous for him, but it was the right call for Kidney to make.
The coach was in a no-win here: if he stuck with O’Leary, whose poor basics outweigh the positives of his athleticism and bravery, then he would have got it in the neck when the poor form continued, and further undermined a team that is clearly struggling; and he will still get some flak for having invested so much time in a player only to leave him in the lurch at the last minute.
Better late than never, however. Personally I feared he would turf Isaac Boss over the side – at Boss’s stage in life Kidney would never have to come across him again, so an easy selection to make – and bring Conor Murray in his place, presenting it as a brave call to go for one so inexperienced. Instead he has made the most painful call of all – separating himself from the player he most wanted to bring, but couldn’t.
The package of Reddan, Boss and Murray will serve us well enough in NZ. Now all Kidney has to do is turn the rest of the wooden-looking structure into something shiny and dynamic.