Ireland's 'next generation' may have to wait for green light
THE result of tomorrow's match against Argentina is certain to have a profound influence on the future development of Ireland's team, win or lose.
Defeat for Ireland would inevitably turn the focus on the future of the coaching team and call into question also the potential benefits of further extending the careers of a number of Ireland's senior players.
The senior players in the squad have justifiably been regarded as members of a 'golden generation'. Their splendid achievements earned them the right to be regarded as such, with four Triple Crowns and a glorious Grand Slam to their credit.
All good things inevitably must come to an end, however, and the challenge for Declan Kidney and his cohorts is to thoroughly prepare the replacements that will be needed to fill their substantial boots when they step down. And the still more delicate task is to identify the appropriate time to bid them adieu.
Young players will grow into international rugby more successfully if they are incorporated into a strong, confident and experienced team on a gradual basis – little profit for anybody in piloting too many in at the one time. And the coach's task is further complicated by the need to win matches while progressing the evolution.
Ireland must, for instance, look to win the Six Nations next spring regardless of what happens tomorrow. That suggests the missing members of the recent successful teams must return – Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien and Rory Best.
The fact that the next World Cup is little more than a couple of years away adds a further complication. Will the senior members of the squad still be a force in 2015 – especially if Ireland have to go into the competition as a third-rank competitor?
It is painfully obvious that Ireland, with relatively small resources, do not have much scope for experimentation and cannot afford to look at the upcoming Six Nations solely as a means of building a vibrant World Cup squad. The fans want results now and so do the IRFU.
Hopefully the performance tomorrow will help Ireland put an end to the current losing run in Test matches and produce a win over Argentina. A win is necessary to lift the pressure that has been building on the coaching staff with each successive defeat.
Ireland have reached a difficult crossroads in the evolution of the squad and a positive performance is needed to bring a level of certainty to the path that needs to be followed. Ideally it would be facilitated by enterprising contributions from the younger players, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy especially.
Also welcome would be an authoritative display from the front- row and especially Mike Ross. The fact that the IRFU felt the need to fly in a prop who had never before stepped foot in the country showed how Ireland are suffering from a lack of a proper planned development programme.
No disrespect to Michael Bent. It is no reflection on him that Ireland do not have a suitable back-up prop in any of the provincial teams or, more accurately, do not have an option playing regularly. That such a situation was allowed occur is unforgivable.
Ireland are not in such dire straits elsewhere. There are, for example, plenty of second-row and, indeed, centre and wing options, but when it comes to players of the calibre of O'Driscoll and O'Connell their age is truly irrelevant.
Mike McCarthy's and Donnacha Ryan's form has helped minimise the loss felt as a result of O'Connell's recurring injury problems while Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden, Chris Farrell, Luke Marshall, Foster Horan and JJ Hanrahan are just some of the players who will have designs on the 12 and 13 shirts.
No matter the outcome tomorrow, though, exceptions must always be made for true majesty like O'Connell's and O'Driscoll's. And even allowing for the impressive list of names jockeying for international promotion, the truth is that the number of those actually capable of stepping up from the provincial to international level is relatively small. As a consequence, Ireland's choices for the Six Nations will be limited, irrespective of tomorrow's result.
Certainly Luke Marshall will come into the equation as O'Driscoll's midfield partner, especially after Kidney referenced his lack of game time as the overriding factor in selecting Gordon D'Arcy ahead of him. "Luke played well (against Fiji) but he hasn't had a huge amount of game time recently, which played into Gordon's hands," said Kidney.
McFadden, whose best position is at inside centre, will be in the mix there also. That he is usually deployed on the wing by Leinster will not help his claims for advancement. He is also likely to see less game time when Fitzgerald returns from injury.
Despite his preference for a central position Fitzgerald is, like Earls, more effective on the wing and he will be a very strong option for the left-wing position in February.
The half-back pairing of Sexton and Conor Murray is unlikely to change unless Paul Marshall forces his way past Ruan Pienaar at Ulster. The coaching staff will also be cognisant of Tomas O'Leary's form in the Premiership with London Irish but Murray will be favoured to retain his spot.
Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne will do battle for the loosehead role with Ross – in the absence of a proven alternative – as anchor. Kilcoyne is a fantastic prospect and if he continues to improve the scrap for the loosehead role will be a fascinating one.
Best will also make an immediate return to the side in February. Strauss is a very capable operator but is not in Best's class while McCarthy and Ryan are fighting it out to partner O'Connell.
The back-row is where the selection will get very interesting with Stephen Ferris, Peter O'Mahony, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Niall Ronan and even James Coughlan all in the mix.
Of the trio starting this weekend Heaslip is, strangely enough, the one most at risk when Ferris and O'Brien come back from injury. Interestingly O'Brien is named at No 8 for Leinster for their game against Glasgow tonight.
His explosive carries from the base of the scrum has often given rise to the question of whether or not he should be positioned there more regularly. At the top of his game Heaslip is a wonderful operator but it's been quite some time since he's been at that level for Ireland.
Peter O'Mahony's versatility across the back-row is both a positive and a curse. For him to progress and grow as a player he needs to be selected in one position and kept there. Whether that position is at blindside or openside isn't as important as simply opting for one.