Painful reality exposes Ireland
A bruising month has highlighted our limitations, says Jim Glennon
T he November Tests are done and dusted and looking forward there are two things on the horizon that contextualise any analysis of what happened over the last month, two entirely separate challenges that await Ireland -- the Six Nations in February, and the World Cup in September.
In the first instance, it appears we are competing more or less on a par with the other five nations. However, in the second, if our intention is to make a semi-final of the World Cup, which is the aspiration of the IRFU and the management, then we will have to compete with whoever comes our way including the big three: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Any year in which we have England and France at home in the Six Nations, and Italy, Scotland and Wales away, has to be seen as a year of opportunity.
The English performances through November have been like the curate's egg so I'm not overly concerned about them. The other big threat is France, who have been remarkably consistent in their phenomenal inconsistency.
It's hard to see past the hiding they got from Australia and in particular the consequences that come with being on the receiving end of such a significant beating in the last game of a series. It could have a hugely negative effect on them in fact, as it will be their last action together until they entertain Scotland on the first Saturday in February. (Their visit to Dublin comes the following weekend.)
And on top of the defeat, with the French propensity of squabbling and turning on each other, that Australian debacle could have a hugely detrimental effect in terms of their World Cup effort.
The problem for Ireland -- indeed the problem for everyone in the northern hemisphere -- is that the big three are once again setting the standard in world rugby.
The Australians were pretty patchy on tour but it has been a long season for them so I wouldn't be reading a lot into their defeat to England. The fact that they finished on a high will be hugely beneficial to them for all the reverse reasons that it will be negative for France. It will launch them into their closed-season break and they will come back positive and confident.
Both South Africa and New Zealand struck me as playing well within their comfort zones in November. It was clear that they felt they could win all their matches without particularly extending themselves and certainly without having to come close to the level of intensity that the Tri Nations requires of them.
That in itself is a daunting prospect. Come the World Cup next year, they will be operating at a totally different level altogether and the question for us is can we get up to anything approaching it? Going on the November Tests and what preceded them, the signs are that we simply don't have the equipment for it.
We had realistically targeted three wins in November but we blew it against a South Africa side that was obviously not in top gear -- indeed the truth is that coming so close to avoiding defeat was pretty irrelevant. If we were harbouring any ambition of advancement, that South African team should have been put away clinically. We then struggled to get a win against Samoa which was no surprise, although by our recent standards we did perform well against New Zealand and gave a fairly comprehensive beating to an Argentinian side in decline. But, overall, we are just not up to the mark at the moment.
One message that the November Tests emphatically hammered home to us was the effect the attrition rate had on our players. And to take that a step further, it was painfully evident just how important the game's physicality has become.
Regrettably, it's a feature of the game that doesn't suit us and in many ways negates some of the work Declan Kidney has done. Just as we seem to be developing some reasonable strength in depth, we're being confronted by the emerging phenomenon of a very high injury rate within the game in general. This places ever-increasing demands on squad numbers at all levels from underage to international.
In fairness, this probably affects other countries to the same extent but unlike us they have such huge numbers and reserves that they can carry it much better. They can absorb the hit with relative ease. For us, it's a question of running faster just to stand still.
For example, if Ireland had a game today, they would be without Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Leo Cullen. That's seven players -- five first choice and two off the bench. And to make it worse -- if that's possible -- included in that are the twin pillars of the team, O'Driscoll and O'Connell.
For a while I wondered if it was coincidental that they are all injured together. And there have been various theories put to me to try and compound that notion, but it's quite simple: the game is advancing and we're not up to it. The increased levels of physicality have added a new dimension and we simply aren't equipped to cope.
Of all the players I have named, not one can be described as a shrinking violet with regards to the physical side of the game, yet they have all come a cropper in one way or another. What it boils down to is that they are the victims of this heightened physicality and as long as the game is played in its current form, the problem will continue.
Ultimately, we seem to be always short of the mark at the highest level, but we're in with a real shout of winning the Six Nations.
We have seen nothing from any of the other countries that would in any way indicate superiority on their part and, as I said, England and France at home is a good starting point. We must realise that, consistent with the national mood, our resources are limited and success at world level is beyond our means.
On the other hand, a combination of good fortune and astute management could make for a comfortable and maybe even successful existence among our Six Nations partners.