Irish rugby facing challenges, new and old, this season
Squad depth, adaptation to new laws and our weak scrummaging will all be tested, writes Jim Glennon
With each passing week, a rugby season which is going to be a marathon one for the leading players, is gathering momentum.
The looming showdown at the Aviva Stadium between Leinster and Munster (for which 43,000 tickets have already been sold) and the return to European Cup action a week later, are coming into ever sharper relief. We are facing into a period of immense importance for Irish rugby, at both national and provincial levels -- it's already a situation of all systems go for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Already there are several talking points. One centres around the impact of the timing of the World Cup on players and management and another is squad depth.
The management of player resources and the associated restrictions placed upon players by national management will present real difficulties for the provinces, but especially for Leinster and Munster. When one considers that our provincial and national squads were shown to be inadequate last time out, further questions will be asked of the respective depths of our provincial squads, regardless of injuries.
Already this season we have seen high-profile injury crises in the Leinster front-row and, to a lesser extent, the Connacht back-row; just how all this plays out over the course of the marathon and amidst the intensity of Europe and the Six Nations will be the defining factor in the Irish season. Another is the impact of referees and their interpretations of the new laws at ruck-time (reluctantly implemented by northern hemisphere unions this season). This summer's Tri Nations competition received unprecedented levels of attention in these parts and while the now customary All Blacks' dominance 12 months out from a World Cup competition was an obvious point of interest, worthy of attention also was the manner in which teams reacted to, and played within, the law interpretations.
Another talking point is how this New Zealand team is scaling even greater heights of proficiency, with their wonderful blend of pace, precision, physicality, and keen tactical awareness. Watching the All Blacks over the summer really puts where Ireland is at, right now, into perspective.
There's only one certainty at this embryonic stage of the season, and that is that all Irish teams, provincial and international, are in for a lengthy, tough and physically-arduous year. Coming in the wake of last season's disappointment, any early signs of progress will be seized on.
Following a trophyless last season at international and club level, we have aspirations for the coming months but, as ever, the Magners League provides the best chance of silverware.
The main focus of attention last season was the scrum, and our inability to compete with the big boys in that area. This had also been the case in the Six Nations drubbing by the French. The degree to which those deficiencies are addressed will have a massive bearing on our prospects this season, and also at the World Cup. With tough draws for both Munster and Leinster in the Heineken pool stages, our mettle will certainly be tested. It's difficult to ascertain with any great level of certainty whether the wrongs of last season have been put right at this stage of the season but there have certainly been signs of encouragement in the opening rounds of the Magners League. How we stand up to the challenges presented by the French in this area remains to be seen, however.
Since the turn of the year we have become acutely aware of weaknesses in the national team. A tough autumn is in store with Argentina, South Africa, Samoa and New Zealand all coming to town, and at least two wins will be the target. Sustained improvement from both Ulster and Connacht can only be a major boost for Irish rugby, and it couldn't come at a better time either; while the marathon has still to be run, there can never be too many willing participants capable of going the distance.