Tag Archives: Tommy Bowe

Lions Look to Change for Second Test

Lions

(c) HSBC.

Tommy Bowe is set to come straight into the Lions starting team for the second Test against Australia after recovering from his hand injury. Despite a clinical finish for his try in the first Test, Alex Cuthbert appears to have lost out to the Ulster wing’s more polished skills and experience at this level. The Welshman should be retained in the match day squad.

At scrumhalf, Mike Phillips is struggling with a long-standing knee injury, which may explain his uncharacteristically untidy performance in the first Test. Ben Youngs looks set to take over in the number nine shirt, with Conor Murray unexpectedly catapulted into the match day 23. It would be entirely deserved for the Munster man, who has enjoyed an excellent tour.

Dan Lydiate appears to have won the battle at blindside, taking over from Tom Croft after the Englishman failed to reach Warren Gatland’s exacting standards in the first Test. It is likely that Croft will be retained on the bench, from where he also covers the second row. Lydiate’s brief would certainly revolve around stifling Will Genia’s influence.

Sean O’Brien, tasked with making a big impact in the second half, should join Croft as a replacement. The Leinster flanker will be keen to show exactly what the Lions were missing last weekend. His name is not one Robbie Deans and the Wallabies will be pleased to see on the team sheet.

Alex Corbisiero’s calf strain hasn’t healed as quickly as Lions staff had hoped, meaning Mako Vunipola looks the probable starter at loosehead. His scrummaging remains a worry, but his work rate in the loose is a boost. Ryan Grant’s final audition against the Rebels yesterday wasn’t enough to win him a Test team spot.

Possible Lions Squad for Second Test

Starting XV: Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, B. Youngs; Heaslip, Warburton (c), Lydiate; Parling, A.W. Jones; A. Jones, T. Youngs, Vunipola.

Replacements: Hibbard, Grant, Cole, Croft, O’Brien, Murray, Farrell, Cuthbert.

Lions: Refine or Redesign?

Warren Gatland has some big decisions to make ahead of the second Test. (c) NAFW.

The Lions are 1-0 up and that is the fact that really counts. But this series is far from won and the Lions will need to greatly improve their performance on Saturday if they are to prevent the Wallabies from leveling matters. Warren Gatland’s game plan didn’t work out as hoped in the first Test and the Lions coaching staff will need to think deeply about how they proceed for the second, and the personnel they choose.

The Lions lineout stats make good reading if taken on a purely numerical basis (100%). However, all but one of those takes were at the front, meaning Mike Phillips wasn’t a running threat and the Lions’ backs weren’t getting ideal possession to play with. Ben Mowen and the Wallabies seemed content to give up the front of the lineout in order to mark up in the middle and at the tail. The Lions appeared to fear Mowen’s defensive prowess and refused to even attempt to beat him at the back.

Jonathan Davies had a good game at 12, but he doesn’t offer the same go-forward as Jamie Roberts. If the Lions are going to continue to accept the easy option at the front of the lineout, then Roberts or Tuilagi have to be considered as the starter at 12. Both of them would be stronger at getting over the gain line and providing Sexton with better quality possession. It would be harsh to drop Davies, but he didn’t look ideal for the role of gain line breaker.

On Saturday, the Lions suffered from an inability to beat a strong Australian defence in phase play. Missing Roberts didn’t help in that regard, but the Lions can’t rely on one player to get them on the front foot. A re-think of the back row looks necessary, with getting an explosive ball carrier into the side important. Sean O’Brien is a player you can count on to tie in defenders and make yards. His hard work with ball in hand close in to rucks creates space for the likes of O’Driscoll and North out wide.

A striking aspect of the Lions’ game plan in the first Test was their utter refusal to kick the ball into touch. The only kicking we saw from Sexton were short chips in behind the defence, a couple of cross-field kicks and a few garryowens. Likewise, Mike Phillips kept all his box kicks well infield. Even when the halfbacks had time to clear directly into touch from their own 22, they kept the ball in play. That ploy simply had to be backed up by a consistently strong kick chase, especially when Phillips was kicking so poorly.

Unfortunately, the Lions were far from their best on kick chase on all but a handful of occasions. Again, the return of Roberts should improve that, and Gatland could do worse than bringing Tommy Bowe into the team to add more aerial ability. Whoever it will be chasing down the kicks, the Lions need to re-focus this ploy of kicking back to the Wallabies.

Jamie Roberts arrives. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Jamie Roberts yn cyrraedd. Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

If Roberts is fit, his return would add a lot to the Lions’ play. (c) NAFW

In the second half, the back three of Ioane, Beale and Folau showed signs of their sharp counter-attacking game, with one scything break from Beale after a badly contested Phillips kick standing out. In refining this game plan, Gatland and his halfbacks need to ensure that their kicks are more contestable (particularly Phillips) and that the Lions chase is far stronger. Folau, Ioane and Beale will be better in the second Test and they just can’t be given the space to counter-attack.

All of these things tie into the idea of refining the current game plan and trying to beat the Wallabies with ‘positive’ attacking play and by scoring tries. That is certainly the approach I would favour. It’s definitely understandable if Gatland doesn’t want to change a winning team, but the Wallabies left 14 kickable points behind in the first Test and Gatland can’t rely on that happening again.

The alternative would be a more ‘negative’ approach and is surely tempting to Gatland now that the Lions are 1-0 up. It’s something that the Demented Mole discussed in his/her excellent article on Dan Lydiate. The Welsh blindside would likely be the key personnel change to such a game plan.

The Lions didn’t kick for territorial gain at all in the first Test, but Gatland may consider completely changing to a system based around territory. Bringing in Lydiate would mean having the best back row defender in the Lions squad on the pitch. Asking Sexton to kick deep into the corners, securing lineout possession and eking out penalties with a low-risk attacking plan to allow Halfpenny to kicks the points may be enticing.

Defensively, Lydiate and the back row would be tasked with stifling Will Genia’s creative play, while the centres would aim to limit the amount of ball that gets wide to Folau and co. As expected, the Wallabies look at their most dangerous in open, broken-up play. This possible change of game plan would be about pining the Wallabies deep in their own half and trying to shut down their attacking flair.

My personal preference for open rugby, and desire to see another Test as exciting as the first, means I hope Gatland focuses on refining the game plan from the first Test. Being loyal to the guys who helped him to come away with a win would be laudable, but I certainly feel that the Lions will have a better chance of wrapping up the series if they make changes to the starting team.

On the checklist for refinement are winning ball at the tail of the lineout, adding more carrying punch to the team, clarifying the kicking tactics, adding aerial ability to the kick chase and limiting the counter-attacking opportunities for the Wallabies. A 10% improvement in each of these areas would probably be enough to earn the Lions a first series win since 1997.

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Photos: National Assembly for Wales.

Same Again for Ireland

The Ireland squad shows no changes from the Italy game. (c) Ken Bohane.

Declan Kidney has selected the exact same match day 22  as that chosen for last weekend’s 42-10 win over Italy. Despite some impressive cameos off the bench, particularly from Leinster’s Eoin Reddan, the Irish management team have kept faith with the likes of Conor Murray and Donncha O’Callaghan ahead of Sunday’s clash with France in Paris, with no changes to the starting 15.

Kidney’s team selection for this rescheduled fixture will almost certainly be greeted with accusations of conservatism and over-loyalty by many fans. Do you think Kidney should have made changes? If so, in what positions? Do you think Reddan and Donnacha Ryan deserved to be starting? Would you have made more than just two changes? Comment below with your opinion on Kidney’s decisions.

Ireland team to face France:

1. Cian Healy (Leinster)

2. Rory Best (Ulster)

3. Mike Ross (Leinster)

4. Donnacha O’Callaghan (Munster)

5. Paul O’Connell (Munster, capt.)

6. Stephen Ferris (Ulster)

7. Sean O’Brien (Leinster)

8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)

9. Conor Murray (Munster)

10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)

11. Andrew Trimble (Ulster)

12. Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)

13. Keith Earls (Munster)

14. Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)

15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)

Subs:

16. Sean Cronin (Leinster), 17. Tom Court (Ulster), 18. Donnacha Ryan (Munster), 19. Peter O’Mahony (Munster), 20. Eoin Reddan (Leinster),21. Ronan O’Gara (Munster), 22. Fergus McFadden (Leinster).

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Photo courtesy: Ken Bohane.

Ireland’s Passive Defence Proves Costly

If you missed the game on Sunday, here’s all the tries and kicks from Ireland’s 23-21 loss to Wales, including Leigh Halfpenny’s match-winning penalty in the last minute:

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The first try (2.00) is fine example of how passive and reactive the Irish defence was on Sunday. All afternoon, Ireland seemed happy to let Wales run at them. It was rare for the Irish to get up hard off the defensive line and make dominant hits. Wales smartly went back down the blindside where Ireland had basically left themselves with a 5 v 2 to defend. Mike Ross and Tommy Bowe were in an awful defensive situation, but ultimately they made no real decision, just let Wales come at them.

Their first steps were sideways and then backwards, allowing Priestland to use his pace to get outside Ross, and get his hands through the despairing tackle for the offload. Watching the clip, the most surprising thing is that Ross and Bowe aren’t screaming for some their teammates to get across to the blindside. Pause the clip at 2.27 and you see how bad a position Ireland left themselves in. Only then do Gordon D’Arcy and Rory Best try to get to the blindside, too late. That lack of urgency affected Ireland badly on Sunday.

Rory Best’s try (4.09) came after Ireland had put together some quick phases and attacked Wales around the fringes with quickly recycled ball, a rare commodity on Sunday. Good hands then allowed Ireland take advantage of a slip-up by Wales. Pause the video at 4.43 and you will see that Priestland has made a bad decision to bite in on D’Arcy, which allows the Irish centre to put Bowe away on Priestland’s outside shoulder.

Wing Alex Cuthbert is left in no man’s land and decides to grab Bowe, but the Ospreys wing has his hands free to send Best over. A good try from an Irish point of view, but one Wales will be unhappy with. Ireland were clinical that time and it shows that they can be an effective attacking force.

Wales were strong at the breakdown again on Sunday. (c) Joslyn Layne.

The next try was Davies’ second, made by George North (7.18). Wales run a simple spot behind Jamie Roberts to North, in off his wing. The pass goes early enough to allow D’Arcy to step up on North. Pause the clip at 2.23, just after North gets the ball. There’s D’Arcy in front of him, and that is the Ireland centre’s tackle to make. McFadden must concern himself with his opposite number, Davies, who is holding his width.

However, McFadden makes the decision to step in on North. He gets completely bounced off, but he shouldn’t have had to even make that decision. Whether it was lack of communication from D’Arcy, or McFadden’s lack of confidence in D’Arcy, he decided he had to help his midfield partner stop North’s run. As you can see, D’Arcy completely slips off North, not even slowing him down. McFadden still should have done better with his hit. North’s beautiful offload did the rest.

Bowe’s try (9.37) came with Wales down to 14 men and Ireland dominating possession. After battering the Welsh tryline with forward runners, Sexton showed intelligence to move the ball wide. Kearney’s pass was perfect and gave Bowe the space to dive over. From that point, Ireland should have been able to finish Wales off with Bradley Davies still in the bin. But it was Warren Gatland’s side who scored next.

To concede the North try (11.53) with an extra man on the field simply highlighted Ireland’s lack of urgency. It was a shock to see Paul O’Connell miss a tackle on Ian Evans in the build-up. That got Wales in behind the Irish defense and gave their backs lovely front-foot ball to run on to. It’s hard to stop this Welsh back division with that kind of ball, but Ireland managed to get three defenders out to North in the corner.

The manner in which North bounced over exemplified how Wales won the physical battle on Sunday. Watching the tries Ireland conceded, it’s clear that they will need to increase the aggression and urgency of their defence for Saturday’s date in Paris. Julien Malzieu, Louis Picamoles and Aurelien Rougerie will offer plenty more of what Wales served up.

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Photos courtesy:  Joslyn Layne, Liam Coughlan.

Transfer Rumours Update

Munster’s signing of James Downey last week signalled the beginning of the province’s plans for next season. This is the time of year when professional clubs are planning and finalising their squads for next season, deciding who will be let go and who they will try to bring in. This obviously leads to plenty of rumours about new signings. The Touchline has rounded up some of the more interesting ones….

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Tommy Bowe to Munster/Ulster

Bowe

Pictured tackling Denis Hurley, Bowe might be his teammate next season. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The big one that most people will have heard is that Tommy Bowe may be returning to Ireland next year. Obviously, each of the four provinces would welcome Bowe with open arms but the depth of competition Leinster already have out wide seems to have ruled them out of the picture. The truth is that Bowe is contracted to the Ospreys until the end of 2013. However, the Welsh regions will operate under new salary restrictions from next season on, and with Tommy Bowe earning 350k a year according to The Sunday Times, they may be convinced to let the Irish wing return home a year early.

If Bowe did make the move back, it seems Munster would be competing with Ulster for his signature. The Monaghan man would definitely be interested in playing for his home province, especially with their exciting backline options of Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Ian Whitten, Jared Payne, Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar and Craig Gilroy. Equally though, the thought of being part of a Munster back division including Conor Murray, Ronan O’Gara, James Downey, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Felix Jones and Doug Howlett would be tempting.

Whatever happens, it would be great to see Bowe playing his club rugby in Ireland again. According to the BBC, Ulster are likely to win the battle for his signature.

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Jerome Kaino to Ulster

All Black World Cup winner Kaino is one of the premier back-rowers in world rugby and any move for him would be huge news. The 28-year-old’s contract at the Auckland Blues finished at the end of this calendar year and Kaino has admitted considering a move to foreign shores. Every club in Europe with the necessary finances would compete for the New Zealander’s signature.

The rumour linking Kaino to Ulster clearly has something to do with the fact that current Ulster tighthead John Afoa is Kaino’s close friend. Afoa actually missed one of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games earlier this season when he flew to Samoa to be best man at Kaino’s wedding. Ulster already have plenty of back-row options including Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Willie Faloon. Still, bringing a world-class player like Kaino on board would be a no-brainer. Pedrie Wannenburg’s contract finishes at the end of this season, and with Roger Wilson already on board, it remains to be seen if Ulster can add even more depth to their back-row.

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Lifeimi Mafi to Perpignan

Mafi magic

Mafi could be on his way out of Munster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The signing of James Downey, and the possibility of Casey Laulala joining too (see below), it would appear that Mafi’s days at Munster are coming to a close. The Tonga-born centre has been a great servant to the province and put in some top-class, dynamic displays. He was undoubtedly at his best when paired in midfield with Rua Tipoki in the 07/08 Heineken Cup-winning season . Since the latter’s exit from Munster though, Mafi has been inconsistent.

The 29-year-old would be well suited to the Top 14. His quick feet and powerful play could be a great success in the more open French league. Perpignan may lose their France international center Maxime Mermoz to one of the bigger clubs this summer, and Mafi would be an ideal replacement.

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Dan Parks to Connacht

Cardiff Blues outhalf Parks had a bit of a ‘mare at the weekend as Charlie Hodgson blocked down the Scottish outhalf’s kick to score for England at Murrayfield. Parks is out of contract at the end of this season, and with Newport Gwent Dragons fly-half Jason Tovey set to join the Blues, it appears that Parks will leave the club.

Despite Parks limitations, he is capable of kicking the corners, kicking his goals and occasionally controlling games, at least at club level. The 33-year-old has never relied on physical attributes, so his age is not a huge issue. Connacht have lacked a consistent goal-kicker, as well as an experienced head at outhalf so that’s where the rumours linking Parks to the western province stem from. Any move for Parks would be hugely disappointing for Connacht’s current pivot, Irish man Niall O’Connor.

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Rhys Ruddock to Munster

Ruddock has been impressive when given the chance for Leinster. (c) Art Widak.

Still just 21, back-row Ruddock feels he is ready to play first-choice provincial rugby. With Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin to compete against, Ruddock doesn’t play every game for Leinster. His recent performance for the Irish Wolfhounds showed just how good Ruddock can be. Ruddock has one cap for Ireland, but with the above four ahead of him in the Leinster pecking order, it will be hard for him to add to that single cap.

Ruddock’s contract runs until the end of this season so a potential move will certainly be in his thoughts. Munster’s back-row options include players who are coming towards the last few seasons of their careers in David Wallace, James Coughlan and Denis Leamy. A move to Munster would make sense for Ruddock’s career, and Joe Schmidt has every reason to be worried about losing one of Leinster’s best prospects. EDIT 10/02/12 – However, the latest line from Munster is that Ruddock has decided to stay with Leinster.

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Casey Laulala to Munster

The Cardiff Blues’ centre is out of contract at the end of season, and there has been much talk that Laulala is one of Munster’s primary targets. The ex-All Black would add creativity to the outside centre position for Munster. Any move for Laulala would be disappointing for young Munster backs Danny Barnes, Scott Deasy and Troy Smith as it would likely push them down the pecking order.

Laulala is 29, so he still has plenty of rugby left in him. He would nicely complement James Downey’s more direct style in midfield. Still, would Laulala’s signing really improve Munster that much? The New Zealander has his moments of class but can often let games pass him by. Surely it would benefit Munster more to keep faith with their youngsters and push them into the first team. Apparently Laulala has several offers on the table, including a move to the lucrative Japanese leagues. EDIT – Munster have sealed the signature of Laulala for next season, read more here.

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Peter Stringer to Connacht

Peter Stringer

Stringer is currently on loan at Saracens. (c) Martin Dobey.

Stringer’s contract expires this summer, and judging by his loan move to Saracens, it seems that Munster have no need for his services any longer. However, Stringer’s form in England shows that he has plenty of rugby left in the tank. The 34-year-old has admitted that he will probably have to look for a move away from Munster in order to secure regular rugby.

Connacht are one side who could benefit from Stringer’s immense experience. This season, Eric Elwood has rotated between Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donohoe at scrumhalf, with neither player making the position his own. Stringer would have been a valuable addition to the Connacht’s Heineken Cup campaign, and Elwood may look to secure the Cork man for next season.

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Brad Thorne to Leinster

With Leo Cullen set for up to 8 weeks on the sidelines after achilles surgery and Steven Sykes having left the province after a disastrous spell, Leinster are short on second-row options right now. As a result, Joe Schmidt has made an approach for World Cup winner Brad Thorne, currently contracted to Japanese side Fukuoka Sanix Blues.  Despite turning 37 last week, the abrasive second-row would be a superb signing for Leinster.

Thorne is contracted to Sanix for next season, but the club played their final game of the domestic season last Saturday, winning 37-26 away to the Docomo Red Hurricanes. That meant the club finished 11th in the 14-team league despite Thorne’s best efforts. The point is that the New Zealander is match-fit, and presumably he would be keen on a short-term spell with the Heineken Cup champions. The problem will most likely be his Japanese club, who would almost certainly want him to rest after a World Cup season. Whatever happens, we should have confirmation on this one over the next few days.

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What do you make of these rumours? Which of these moves do you think would improve the provinces and the players in question? Would you like to see these transfers actually happen? Comment below with your views. Feel free to add any rumours you may have heard!

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Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

Ireland Open with Defeat

Wales were deserved winners at the Aviva. (c) Paul Wallace.

Disappointment will be the major feeling for this Irish team after their 23-21 loss to Wales. That disappointment will be directed at themselves. Wales were the better team at the Aviva and fully deserved to win, regardless of whether or not Wayne Barnes made the correct call on Stephen Ferris’ last-minute tackle. Warren Gatland’s men played all the rugby and their physicality was spectacular at times.

In a strange role reversal of the World Cup quarter-final between these sides, Wales dominated in terms of possession and territory. Ireland struggled to put together phases for extended periods. Once again, this was in part down to Wales’ intelligence at the breakdown. How many times did we see Welsh tacklers and defenders lying on the wrong side of the ruck, slowing down the speed at which Conor Murray could move it away?  Wayne Barnes was particularly tolerant in this aspect of the game, although he did penalise Fergus McFadden for the same offence, allowing Leigh Halfpenny to knock over a penalty.

As pointed out on The Touchline during the week, the breakdown was always going to be one of the key factors in this game. Wales came out on top and this helped them to overcome problems with their lineout. Allied to that was their aggressive line speed in defence. Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards has always preached the benefits of a proactive defence and we saw his work at first hand again today.

In complete contrast, Ireland were largely reactive in defence. The shape of Ireland’s defence is almost always good, in that they consistently have the numbers needed to defend any situation. The problem against Wales was that even though the defence was in position, the line speed was not there. Ireland’s first two or three steps up in defence were quick, but then they seemed to sit back on their heels and allow Wales to run at them. Too many times, Wales won the physical collisions. While it’s true that they have some prime specimens, particularly in the backline, that is no excuse.

Paul James & Jamie Roberts

Wales' Paul James and Jamie Roberts had plenty of reason to smile after an impressive team display. (c) Phil Rogers.

The late withdrawal of Keith Earls didn’t seem to alter the anticipated Welsh game-plan as they continually attacked the 13 channel. Fergus McFadden had an extremely busy day defensively, and must be credited for his 16 tackles. However, the manner in which George North bounced him off for Jon Davies’ second try was disappointing. McFadden went in far too high on the freakishly strong 19-year-old. The tackling for North’s own try was again weak, as he went through three defenders in the left-hand corner.

We must applaud the Welsh skills for their tries. Rhys Priestland’s offload for Davies’ first try was gorgeous and North’s flick after bouncing McFadden was even better. With that flash of creative skill, the prodigy showed his game has more to it than sheer brutishness. Tommy Bowe was completely outplayed by his opposite number, although the Monaghan man did show his fine finishing ability for Ireland’s second try.

The frustrating thing is that both Irish tries showed what this team is capable of doing. They just couldn’t impose themselves over the Welsh enough to do it regularly, the ten minutes where Bradley Davies was in the bin aside. That ten minutes saw Declan Kidney’s men get on top and score through Bowe. Still, the immediate feeling was that they needed to get more than the 5 points they managed in that time. That would prove to be the case as Wales battered their way over through North and then won the game in controversial circumstances.

Would Ferris’ tackle have warranted a penalty and yellow if Davies hadn’t been sent to the bin earlier? Probably not, but it’s beside the point really. An Irish win today would have felt like an escape. Obviously the Irish players would have gladly taken a victory, but would it have been deserved? The euphoria of a win would have masked the deficiencies of this Ireland performance. Surely the end product of combining our undoubtedly strong provinces can produce more than what we saw today? Perhaps it will. This Six Nations is only just underway and it would be foolish to write off Ireland straight away.

Wales won this game because they dominated the physical battle, beat Ireland at the breakdown and produced moments of creative skill at crucial times. Declan Kidney has plenty of improvement to draw from his team and there is a lot they can learn from Wales.

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Photos courtesy:  Paul Wallace, Phil Rogers.

The Touchline’s Ireland Selection

Andrew Trimble, pictured carrying the ball, is one of Ireland's most in-form players. (c) Ross Wynne.

At lunchtime tomorrow, Ireland will announce their match day 22 for the Six Nations opener with Wales on Sunday. Everyone has their own opinions on who should be in that match day squad, and plenty of different reasons why. So here’s your chance to pick the team…

Below is The Touchline’s choice of 22 for Sunday. You’ll see why we have chosen each player and why they were preferred to the other available options. After you’ve read through this selection, post your team/squad in the comments sections at the bottom of the page.

This is not the exact team that we think Declan Kidney will pick, but rather the team that we would pick if we were in charge of the Ireland team. Some players will be unanimously picked in everyone’s teams, but it will be interesting to see what players you think Kidney should take a chance on…

The Touchline’s Starting 15 for Wales Game

1. Cian Healy – As we saw in a Man of the Match performance against Australia at the World Cup, Healy is world-class at his best. While he hasn’t really hit those heights for Leinster since returning from New Zealand, his display against Montpellier two weeks ago showed he is hitting form at the right time. Also, the fact that Brett Wilkinson and Tom Court are his only opposition for the loosehead spot means he is a certainty to start. His battle with Adam Jones will be key.

2. Sean Cronin – Rory Best had a stellar World Cup and probably deserves to retain the jersey because of that. But for this particular match, Cronin would be my choice. Battling with Richardt Strauss for the Leinster No.2 jersey has brought rapid progress from Cronin. His lineout throwing has improved to an international level. However, it’s his pace and mobility that I would pick him for. The Welsh aren’t afraid to open games up, and that is where Cronin is at his best. With Welsh tackles likely to be focused on O’Brien and Ferris, the Leinster hooker could cause havoc.

3. Mike Ross – The lack of competition at tighthead means that Ross has become an irreplaceable cog in this Irish team. Declan Kidney’s loss of faith in Jamie Hagan means that Tom Court is the only other viable option in this position. Court would be a clear downgrade on Ross, so keeping him fit is essential. His importance lies at the set-piece, ensuring Ireland win their own ball and trying to disrupt on the Wales put-in as much as possible.

4. Dan Tuohy – There’s no lack of competition here, with Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan hopeful of selection, and realistically ahead of Ulster’s Tuohy. There will be plenty of calls for Ryan’s ball-carrying ability to be included, but for me, Tuohy offers more than the Munster man. His strength on the ball is complemented by good skills and he is a shrewd operator out of touch. Tuohy was one of the stand-out players in the Wolfhounds loss to the Saxons, continuing his superb form for Ulster all season.

Paul O'Connell will captain Ireland on Sunday. (c) Ross Wynne.

5. Paul O’Connell – There will be no argument with this selection! O’Connell captains the side and is in the best form of his life. Even if you were to exclude his world-class leadership qualities, O’Connell is one of the best second-rows in the world right now. He has been immense for Munster all season, dragging them through games on several occasions. His ball-carrying, which was not always a strength, has improved immeasurably in the past six months. Expect another huge performance.

6. Stephen Ferris – If there is any Irish player who can match O’Connell’s level of performance this season, then  it’s Stephen Ferris. He has been vital to Ulster as they have developed into a side that looks like real contenders for the Heineken Cup. Bouncing defenders for fun and smashing opponents in the tackle, Ferris has been unstoppable. The physical side of his game has been complemented by his refined offloading and decision-making. Ferris is not just a wrecking ball, he offers pace and subtlety too.

7. Sean O’Brien – While Ireland’s lack of a breakdown specialist is a weakness, there are no standout options to perform that role. If Niall Ronan hadn’t been ruled out for the season, then I would have seriously considered him here. But O’Brien’s extreme physicality has to be accommodated somewhere. At his best, the 2011 ERC European Player of the Year can carry this team. He has proven calibre at this level and will be keen to show that the Welsh cannot nullify his impact a second time.

8. Jamie Heaslip – One idea I toyed with in my selection was playing O’Brien at the back of the scrum, meaning Heaslip would be dropped. If James Coughlan had been included in yesterday’s 32-man squad then I would have contemplated starting him. In the end though, Heaslip gets the nod. While he still hasn’t matched the heights of 2009, the Leinster No.8 offers experience, intelligence and a degree of ability at the breakdown. He will be out to prove himself as one of the tournament’s best No.8s

9. Conor Murray – The Munster scrumhalf is up against Leinster’s Eoin Reddan for the 9 jersey. We’ve gone for Murray due to the more all-round game he brings. While Reddan’s passing is crisp and his game well suited to a team on the front foot (witness Leinster’s hammering of Bath at the Aviva), Murray offers more. The 22-year-old has a physical presence that Reddan cannot match, is far more threatening around the fringes and possesses a cool head. It seems to be very difficult to fluster the youngster, whereas Reddan is at times susceptible to a lack of control. Murray against Mike Phillips at scrumhalf would be a fascinating battle of the world’s best and one with the potential to challenge him.

10. Jonathan Sexton – This was the hardest call to make and I changed it several times. Ronan O’Gara’s form for Munster means it is difficult to leave him out. Sexton nudged ahead on the basis that his style perhaps suits this game a little better. Physically stronger, Sexton is better equipped to handle the likes of Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau running down his channel. While there is nothing wrong with O’Gara’s distribution, Sextons’s more all-round attacking game is more of a threat. The hope would be that Sexton has put his World Cup place-kicking nightmare behind him.

Sexton just about gets ahead of O'Gara at outhalf. (c) Ross Wynne.

11. Andrew Trimble – If Kidney were to pick his team on form, then Trimble would be one of the first names mentioned. The 27-year-old has never been an undisputed first-choice for Ireland, but surely now his time has come. He has been excellent for Ulster all season. 6 tries in 11 games highlights his finishing ability, but there is so much more to Trimble’s games than taking scoring opportunities. His work-rate is as high as you will see for a winger. Defensively aggressive and brave, Trimble is not afraid of getting stuck in. His strength and speed make him the complete winger.

12. Fergus McFadden – Gordon D’Arcy has been the man in possession of this jersey for what seems like an eternity. He has been a great servant to Ireland, that cannot be disputed. But the past two seasons have seen his influence gradually wane and the time has come to install a replacement. Leinster teammate Fergus McFadden fits the bill nicely. He is a different type of player to D’Arcy. He gets over the gainline through hard, direct lines using his pace whereas D’Arcy relies on his excellent footwork. D’Arcy is regarded as a fine defender but the truth is that he has missed some important tackles in recent times. McFadden’s passing has improved massively under Joe Schmidt (check his skip pass here), to the extent that he has the ability to distribute from 12.

13. Eoin O’Malley – It seems likely that Kidney will go for Keith Earls against Wales. Darren Cave would have been my first-choice but he too has been ruled out through injury. Next in line for me would be Leinster man O’Malley. He is a natural 13 and his form has been superb this season. The talk of his defence being weak appears to be based on one missed tackle, a tackle which wasn’t even his to make. In fact, O’Malley is an extremely competent defender. His positioning is always clever and he has exceptional ability at the breakdown. O’Malley’s low centre of gravity allows him to get over the ball, slowing it down or winning turnovers. He is also a real attacking talent, with quick feet and a strong pass off both sides.

14. Tommy Bowe – First off, I will admit that I have not seen much of Bowe for the Ospreys this season. However, even an off-form Bowe would be included in my team. 5 tries in 13 games would suggest that the Monaghan man hasn’t forgotten his way to the tryline. The Ospreys wing is one of the world’s best wingers and one of Ireland genuinely world-class players. The big occasion often brings out the best in Bowe. As always, he will be relied upon to make positive yards for Ireland as well as finishing any chance that comes his way. Going for Trimble and Bowe on the wings means Earls missing out. Trimble’s form sees him ahead of Earls while Bowe’s quality makes him undroppable.

15. Rob Kearney – Joe Schmidt has backed Kearney as his first-choice fullback this season despite the excellence of Isa Nacewa when filling in at 15 last season. But Kearney’s recent displays have justified Schmidt’s decision. The Louth native looks quicker than ever and clearly used his the time out last season to study the role of the modern fullback to a greater extent. Kearney’s understanding of when to counter-attack, when to kick and when to take contact make his decision-making a real strength. His defensive positioning and concentration look to have improved too. Fullback is another position where Ireland have a lack of genuine competition. Denis Hurley is nowhere near Kearney’s standard. In fact, Kearney’s younger brother David would appear to be the next best option.

Subs

16. Rory Best - The only other hooker in the squad and therefore a no-brainer.

17. Tom Court – Brett Wilkinson is the only other prop in the squad, but he can only cover loosehead. Court has played on both sides of the scrum so is included for that reason.

18. Donnacha Ryan – Ryan could cover second-row as well as the back-row, making him an obvious choice for the bench. He would have good impact too with his aggression and ability to make hard yards.

19. Peter O’Mahony – This is a seriously competitive spot, with plenty of competition to cover the back-row. O’Mahony gets the nod because he would be the one who could create the biggest impact. His abrasive, in-your-face style would be ideal if Ireland were struggling to impose themselves on Wales. O’Mahony fears nothing and would do everything in his power to unsettle the Welsh players.

20. Eoin Reddan – Once again, Reddan is the only other option in this position so has to be included in case of injury to Murray. In an ideal world, Paul Marshall would have been better to spring if Ireland were chasing the game.

21. Ronan O’Gara – What a man to have on the bench. Any sign of Sexton not handling the pressure and ROG could be relied upon. While there is an argument that Sexton should be now given free reign over the outhalf position, without the added pressure of O’Gara on the bench, the Leinster No. 10 should be well able to  deal with it.

22. Keith Earls – The Munster man scored 5 tries at the World Cup and clearly is a quality player. His best position is on the wing and he would benefit by both Munster and Ireland seeing this. However, for this game, his ability to fill in at centre, wing and fullback makes him an ideal replacement.

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So, what do you make of that team? If you were in Declan  Kidney’s position who would you pick? Would you go for any wildcards? Would you give youth a real chance and blood all five uncapped players? Or would you stay loyal to the tried and tested? O’Gara or Sexton? Cronin or Best? Murray or Reddan?

Comment below with your starting 15/22!

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Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne.