Ireland's Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip celebrates with Peter O'Mahony. INPHO/James Crombie
Six Nations

Groundhog day: do Ireland need a 7 to win in Paris?

Is Peter O’Mahony the the key to an Irish win in Paris this weekend?

Reproduced with permission from Setanta Ireland

DECLAN KIDNEY YESTERDAY named his 22-man squad to face the daunting task of securing an Irish win against France in Paris for the first time since 2000.

Wholesale change was not predicted and nor was it delivered. Nothing was changed, in fact.

Realistically, only a couple of positions were up for grabs. Eoin Reddan had applied significant pressure to Conor Murray following an impressive substitute appearance in the Aviva last week, where the Leinster scrum-half visibly lifted the tempo of the Irish team. Murray’s service was slow but he endured a difficult first half behind a relatively static pack and he will be back.

Elsewhere in the back line, both Jonny Sexton and Keith Earls did enough last week to hold off their respective threats and it was encouraging from an Irish point of view to see Sexton kick from the tee according to his ability.

Up front, Donncha Ryan can again feel hard done by not to get the nod ahead of Munster team-mate Donncha O’Callaghan. Ryan does bring a dynamism and aggression from the bench which is possibly attractive to Kidney, but he will surely be itching to start.

This leads us onto the back row, which is where I want to focus. The balance of this Irish back row has been the cause of some debate in the last few weeks, particularly in the media where it has been discussed at great length.

It has been widely suggested that the trio of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are too similar to occupy the three positions at the back of the scrum. All three are powerful men who thrive on making carries although all three possess other attributes to their game, of course. But, is this Ireland row unbalanced and do they need a ‘seven’?

What is a ‘Seven’?

You could be excused for thinking in recent weeks that a ‘seven’ is some sort of new age machine which will destroy all before it on the rugby pitch, such is the volume of the calls for one to be introduced into the Irish team. Well, it isn’t.

A seven in the traditional sense is a player who will dominate at the breakdown, a groundhog who will slow down and scavenge ball from the opposition whilst also acting as a crucial cog in attack, linking backs and forwards. They are everywhere.

David Pocock and Sam Warburton are probably two of the best examples to use in the modern game of ‘out-and-out sevens’. Pocock, in particular, is a master at the breakdown. Richie McCaw is another who is famed for his work at ruck time but also represents a more physical presence with ball in hand.

Is Sean O’Brien an ‘out-and-out seven’? For all his strengths, O’Brien is not a groundhog and although he is more than capable of scavenging, it is not exactly his forte. That is not why he is in this team. O’Brien is surely picked to get his hands on the ball, make big carries and smash people in defence. Yes, he is undoubtedly encouraged to be competitive at the breakdown but so would Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris.

Can This Backrow Work?

Heaslip, O’Brien and Ferris are all world class players, of that there can be no debate. On their day, this back row can function to great effect and could potentially be one of the most powerful and best ball-carrying back rows in the world.

To a man, they were immense against Australia in the World Cup, gobbling up yards in attack for fun and simply awesome in defence. However, that game was over four months ago at this stage and it is probably worth noting that Australia were missing David Pocock on the day. The problem with the current back row is that while all individually brilliant on their day, they aren’t as effective as they should be for Ireland. This is most applicable to Sean O’Brien on current form. Both Ferris and Heaslip have been impressive at stages in this Six Nations but If truth be told, O’Brien has been relatively anonymous.

It is very possible that O’Brien is conscious of the number on his back and the responsibilities that are associated with that role. The Tullow man should at the very least be a big barraging number seven but at the moment, Ireland are not even getting that from him. It looks distinctly like he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, uncertain of his requirements.

Much of this comes down to the coach. Even at seven, O’Brien should be encouraged to play his normal game. That is what got him to where he is, after all. If you pick Sean O’Brien, you want to see him with the ball in his hands.

Peter O’Mahony with his first cap last week. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Is Peter O’Mahony the answer?

Although not exactly a groundhog in the mould of a Pocock, Peter O’Mahony is probably the closest thing Ireland have at the moment. The Munster man is an incredible nuisance at the breakdown and possesses many of the attributes required to fulfil the role. Given his current form for his province, it is not a question of if but when. The question then is who makes way.

For the moment, this Irish back row has been afforded some more time. It is a trio that should be brutally dynamic and explosive, given their qualities. No better platform for them to prove their worth than against France at the Stade de France.

If they perform to their potential, Ireland can win this.

What do you think?

Twitter: @TomFoxy

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