Cronin out to hit full stride with world at his feet
THE World Cup is dead. Long live the World Cup.
The 2015 cycle starts here and while planning may not yet be in full swing, a host of young Ireland players will be looking to force their way into the set-up with a view to England in four years' time.
Sean Cronin has served his apprenticeship, he's done his time on the bench. He watched on as an unused sub while Rory Best battled manfully against a youthful Welsh side in the quarter-final.
Cronin has been around the Irish set-up since 2009 and has won 15 caps -- six from a starting position, but none of those in a Six Nations game.
His only competitive start so far was against Russia in Rotorua, and while he came on in the win over Italy, the dynamic ball-carrier was never sprung from the bench when things were going Wales' way in Wellington.
Whether Declan Kidney opts for major changes and decides to go with youth this year remains to be seen. Jerry Flannery will be nearly 37 in four years' time, Best will be 33. Cronin will be 29 and in the prime of his career.
If Ireland are serious about blooding youth, he could well be the side's starting hooker come spring.
First though, the Limerick native wants to settle in at Leinster.
After three years honing his skills at Connacht, he made the leap at the end of last season and joined the Heineken Cup champions, where he will compete with Richardt Strauss -- another potential Ireland hooker if the South African-born 25-year-old becomes a naturalised Irish player -- for the No 2 jersey.
The move made sense for both parties: the retirement of John Fogarty and Bernard Jackman left Leinster light on hookers and Strauss tired towards the end of last season after playing so many games.
Cronin felt he needed to play Heineken Cup rugby and although Connacht would subsequently reach their holy grail by virtue of his new club's European Cup success in Cardiff, he now has a realistic chance of winning silverware.
"It's very exciting," he said yesterday. "Obviously, the preparation was firmly focused on the World Cup over the summer so I've to get the head down now, get to know my coaches and team-mates.
"I know most of the lads from playing underage in the schools and the U-21s, but it's about trying to get a fluency with them here and get selected for the team.
"I'm ready to go at this stage. The World Cup was a great experience to be involved in and I'm back now, I'm just trying to get back integrated with the squad in terms of combinations and getting to know team-mates. I'm looking forward to getting a run of games, hopefully."
Cronin is one of a number of the returning World Cup squad who didn't play against Wales and are expected to be involved against Edinburgh in the Pro12 on Friday night.
His first challenge is taking on Strauss for that starting hooker spot. They look evenly matched; both are strong ball-carriers, with the South African potentially stronger on the throw.
Joe Schmidt alternated his scrum-halves last year to great success and it could be a way of integrating the duo.
"It's going to be extremely tough. I thought he did tremendous here last year," Cronin said of Strauss.
"I think if you are at any top European side, they have at least two really good players in each position and I hope what's going to happen now is that we're going to drive each other on for the rest of the season.
"It's always reassuring to know that a coach is backing his players; you could see that last year the way he dealt with his scrum-halves.
"But it's a long season ahead, I haven't even played one game yet so it's just about trying to get a bit of form after two or three weeks off. It's about getting a bit of game time."
That's the start, but the longer-term vision is to get back to a World Cup and, next time, to make a major impact.