By Alan Dymock
AS THE rain tumbled down at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland were toiling. They had dug deep, hoping to scoop out some of the visceral anger that bubbles up whenever England stand opposite, but they had dug themselves a hole instead.
Now, almost a week later, they are left with their heavy-footed prop Cian Healy kicking his heels until March 10 and their normally ice-cool fly-half Jonny Sexton icing his hamstring, while their flying winger Simon Zebo is grounded, and lastly, their reliable centre Gordon D’Arcy unavailable and their jovial lock Mike McCarthy left ashen faced.
A ban for Healy and injuries to Sexton, Zebo, D’Arcy and McCarthy has left Declan Kidney with a selection headache. Not because he will not know who to pick to start against Scotland a week on Saturday – it is fairly obvious who Kidney will throw in – but because he has to consider his bench.
After Healy lost control and botched a stamp on Dan Cole’s ankle he is banned and replaced, for the Scotland and France games, with Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne the most likely replacement. Sexton will almost certainly step aside for the usually-depedable Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan should come in for McCarthy. So far; so good.
However, with Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden slugging it out for a starting spot in the centre, or the wing, it must be decided what style is needed against Scotland. Structure with Earls at centre and McFadden on the wing or a lurch into the unknown and an added kicking option with McFadden at centre?
With the bench, too, there is a test of Kidney’s dedication to adventure. Rolling back the years and allowing O’Gara and O’Callaghan back into play may stabilise the side, and Kilcoyne is more than familiar with the setup, but the likely bench is cause for head scratching and impromptu yelps.
Tom Court has experience and is a lukewarm favourite to come into the squad; in the engine room Iain Henderson and Devin Toner are possibles; Paddy Jackson is a shoe-in.
Court is not the best scrummager, but his Ulster teammates offer danger and excitement, as does McFadden.
Stick to the blueprint, and Kidney should pick Toner on the bench. If Kidney is in pursuit of sexiness, McFadden lines up inside and Earls takes to the wing – in reality a more comfortable move for both men – and Henderson benches.
There is a distinct feeling that Ireland have dusted off the time machine. Being bloodied by the English can send you racing backwards. Nevertheless, if Ireland look to the future rather than the past they can excite as well as get the guttural venom of the younger generation pumping, just as they did themselves out of their current hole.