Genuine options in every position
SINCE he took over as Ireland coach more than two years ago, Declan Kidney has spoken continually about developing his squad.
As has been consistently proven since the World Cup was first staged 23 years ago, success in that tournament hinges to a large degree on a squad's capacity to produce players with sufficient ability and experience to step in if required. When hooker Damien Varley arrived off the bench late in the second half yesterday, he became the 30th player used by Kidney in the November Series.
That is a healthy situation nine games out from New Zealand 2011 and the development of the likes of Sean Cronin, Devin Toner and Tom Court has been a considerable boon this month, as has the rejuvenation of scrum-half Peter Stringer in the absence of Tomas O'Leary. Jonathan Sexton grew into the out-half role as the series progressed and, though he will be frustrated with his designated role as out-half back-up, Ronan O'Gara can be pleased with his contribution this month, when he re-emphasised his importance to the squad.
Depth-wise, it would have been good to see players such as Mike Ross, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr get some game time this month but, at this juncture, unless injuries create the relevant holes in the squad, time appears to be running out for this trio.
There are basic areas to work on, mostly in the set-pieces. Kidney appears to be committed to Cian Healy, Tony Buckley, Tom Court and John Hayes as his four first-choice props, with Ross at number five but, though they had their difficulties in the scrum over the last four weeks -- especially against the Springboks and Samoans -- yesterday's display was very encouraging.
The line-out has been something of a mixed bag, ruinous against South Africa, superb against Samoa (with Toner in the middle) and adequate against the All Blacks and Pumas. However, the restarts, particularly receptions, were poor throughout and this is an area where hard work needs to be done before the Six Nations.
Ireland conceded seven tries in their four games, with the All Blacks crossing for four, South Africa two and Samoa one but, while there were scores that could have been avoided, overall it was a pretty decent month for defence coach Les Kiss.
Most crucially, this team improved as the series wore on, which bodes well for the World Cup campaign when momentum and adjustment will be crucial to Ireland's progress.
If confidence, or lack of it, was the buzzword after the opening defeat to South Africa and fitful win over Samoa, it ceased to be an issue in the final two games when Ireland displayed a lot more belief and willingness to attack -- helped by the drier conditions.
Given that Ireland can, hopefully, look forward to the return of leaders such as Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Rory Best to the squad, the self-belief quota should increase while there is room also for the calm authority of Leinster's Leo Cullen.
Brian O'Driscoll's recovery from yesterday's jaw injury will obviously be crucial in this regard and his return, alongside other injured backs Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney will be pivotal to Ireland's Six Nations aspirations.
However, success in that competition in World Cup year is not the be-all and end-all. The key is to continue the development, in terms of playing strength and game plan effectiveness, made over the past four weeks. Time was, it was harder to get off the Irish team than get on it, but Kidney has been true to his word and suddenly there are genuine options in every position. Not a bad way to have it.