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Injuries no insult for Ireland

Ireland’s growing injury crisis is an opportunity that Declan Kidney should exploit, writes Mark Hobbs.

WHILE NO ONE would ever wish injuries upon a player or squad, there is an upside to the current problems facing the national rugby team ahead of Saturday’s clash with Italy.

Roy Keane once said that repeating the same experiment and expecting a different result is a sign of madness. If this is the case then it’s a wonder that Declan Kidney wasn’t dragged away by the men in white coats last term.

the head coach’s record as a manager is excellent, and few could argue that his CV is anything but impressive. After winning two Heineken Cup and a Six-Nations Grand Slam, he is the most successful Irish coach of the professional era.

However last season Ireland under-achieved greatly, and the malaise followed through to this term when the side failed to impress in the November internationals. For the first time in a number of years Kidney faced widespread criticism, notably for the conservatism he exhibited in his team selection. Even with consistent poor performances or against lower-tiered nations he persisted with his usual reliables.

The recent injury crisis has forced his hand somewhat; and his need to make changes could well prove vital come next autumn’s World Cup. The Six Nations is the team’s bread and butter, and a real barometer of the side’s form and ability. But this is a World Cup year and that competition should be prioritised accordingly.

The injuries to Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy have given Luke Fitzgerald a fantastic opportunity to showcase his counter-attacking ability at full-back and regain some confidence. Fergus McFadden, whose performances have contributed to the outstanding recent form of Leinster, is an interesting recruit to the wing and will earn his first full senior cap.

On the other side, Keith Earls will look to recapture the form of 2009. The re-jigged backline may reinvigorate Ireland’s attack, which stagnated and became flat and predictable in 2010. At the very least it will be a reminder to the stalwarts in the squad that there is competition for places.

Pushing on

Mike Ross is a welcome addition to a scrum that lacks firepower in the front-row, and he has been seriously under-used at this level. Heaslip’s loss is Sean O’ Brien’s gain at No 8. The Carlow man has been in imperious form of late, and comes into the Italy clash as arguably Europe’s most in-form back-row after consecutive man of the match performances in the Heineken Cup.

Ireland have the potential to be a dynamic and fearsome team, and O’Brien epitomises everything that a rugby player should be; his pace, power and handling ability will worry opposition flankers and provide vital space for the half-back combination of O’Leary and Sexton.  Denis Leamy should be hungry and motivated and the absence of Ferris allows him a chance to lay claims for a place.

Last year was not a vintage year for Irish rugby. Perhaps it was complacency; perhaps there was a perception that there weren’t men on the wings baying for a place in the side. But the recent spate of injuries means some of those who have waited patiently on the sidelines can instigate some urgency and motivation into a team that looked tired and bereft of ideas in 2010.

Leinster’s scintillating recent performances, Ulster’s grit and the passion of the late fight back from Munster against London Irish show that there is a passion and pride to play rugby out there. Maybe the coaches weren’t always looking in the right paces.

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Mark Hobbs

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