I didn’t see that one coming. I doubt he did either. Declan Kidney has sprung the greatest surprise of his managerial reign by thrusting Conor Murray into the starting XV for Ireland’s opening World Cup game against the USA. It turns out that my selection (of a week ago) was fairly wide of the mark. Murray aside, Ireland will take to the field in their opening fixture with a squad that many would regard as a first choice selection. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll will feature, O’Connell is also included, while the presence of players such as Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe suggests that Kidney wants to make a statement of intent and simultaneously ensure that this campaign starts on the right note.
Any team choice will inevitably spark debate. However, not many people will have complaints about the Irish side chosen for Sunday afternoon. Injury has deprived the tournament’s opening weekend of two potential World Cup stars in Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien. O’Brien is fit but management have opted against unleashing him too soon following a muscle strain that he picked up in recent weeks. He will have a big role to play against Australia. Previously discarded, Shane Jennings now has a chance to stake a claim for the openside flank. Elsewhere, Rob Kearney has been omitted, while Keith Earls pips the in-form Andrew Trimble for the No.11 shirt. While it hasn’t been mentioned in the media, I believe that the USA game comes a couple of days too soon for Kearney. I expect both he and Trimble to play against the Aussies. In any case, neither Earls nor Geordan Murphy represent gambles on Kidney’s part. Instead it is assumed that Murphy needs game-time in the event that Kearney’s injury plagued year continues, while Earls has not been given much of an opportunity to display his talent in his better position.
Murray’s presence has however raised a few eyebrows. The indications are that Kidney is toying with the idea of charging the young scrum-half with nullifying the threat posed by Will Genia in Auckland next week. Genia goes into this tournament as arguably the finest half-back in world rugby. Together with the talented Quade Cooper, he guided the Queensland Reds to silverware this season and will aim to do likewise with the Wallabies. He poses the greatest threat to Ireland’s dreams. Personally I have not seen much of Murray, but the chap is obviously rated. Towards the end of Munster’s Magners League campaign he had ousted the evergreen Peter Stringer and the returning Tomas O’Leary, both experienced internationals. He continued in that vein by getting the nod over the same players for the World Cup party.
While the scrum-half position has plenty of depth in Ireland, none of Murray’s immediate challengers instil great confidence. Reddan can be brilliant one minute, awful the next. Take for instance this years Heineken Cup Final. Reddan was having a poor game and shouldered much of the blame but the same player emerged after half-time like a man possessed, bringing the intensity and speed required to chase down Northampton’s lead. Isaac Boss is a robust alternative, but, like Reddan, too often he mixes the good with the bad. The hope is that Murray is of a different ilk. While Ronan O’Gara may have been a sensible option outside the youngster, Kidney needs to find if Jonny Sexton can bring his big-game temperament to the pressure cooker environment of the World Cup. Furthermore, Kidney would undoubtedly like a big score to boost spirits and Sexton is the man to manufacture tries. Whether Kidney will do likewise against the Aussies is questionable, instead O’Gara may be the one to steer Ireland to a famous victory by doing what he does best, kicking to the corners and the posts.