Hugh Farrelly: Ireland must copy the Welsh model and sacrifice Heineken Cup success
Published 20/03/2012 | 05:00
THE Dragons used to be a joke on the Celtic League circuit. Never the most athletic of sides, they would waddle onto the RDS, Musgrave Park or Ravenhill, with bright yellow jerseys bulging over their bellies, ripe for another stuffing.
You were aware of the names without paying too much attention -- the interest lay in how many points they would ship and they never disappointed (even the under-achieving Nick Williams once ran in three tries against them for Munster). They were punchbags and a rugby punchline, but no one is laughing at the Dragons now.
Meanwhile, Ireland have been racking up the Heineken Cup titles, four since 2006, but are unable to turn those achievements into consistency at international level since their Grand Slam in 2009. The Welsh have three Grand Slams to savour since 2005 and though the lack of trophies at club level is a frequent topic of debate, any concern is swamped by the fact that players are coming through to aid the national cause.
The recent exodus to France will weaken the Welsh clubs further, but as long as Wales keep performing the way they have under Warren Gatland, they can live with those market forces while extra spaces have been freed up at home to bring up another crop of talent.
Rugby is the national sport in Wales, which is a huge help, whereas, while it has undergone tremendous growth in Ireland over the last 10 years, rugby still lags behind the GAA and soccer in terms of playing numbers here.
Nonetheless, there is still plenty of young talent in this country; the difference between the two countries is the willingness to give it its head while, in key positions, Ireland's pool has been shown to be worryingly shallow.
The lack of adequate cover at prop was exposed by Saturday's filleting in Twickenham and, while this is not a surprise or breaking news to anyone, the destruction of the Irish scrum has served to highlight the issue once more.
Ireland's first-choice scrum is the equal of any, and has proven as much since Mike Ross was belatedly given his chance. The problem on Saturday was that Ross sustained a 'stinger' injury early on and though he bravely ploughed on, was clearly struggling.
The much-improved Alex Corbisiero and hooker Dylan Hartley went after Ross in a pincer movement, and with Rory Best appearing to be carrying a rib injury into the game, the Irish were immediately on the back foot.
Tom Court, a quality loose-head but nowhere near the required standard on the tight-head side, hadn't a prayer when he came on.
As Ireland coach Declan Kidney admitted afterwards, there is no quick-fix solution to Ireland's propping problem, but it would certainly help if the likes of Stephen Archer, Jamie Hagan and Paddy McAllister were starting regularly -- at least then they could be properly assessed.
The IRFU's Player Succession Strategy is not the cure for all ills, but it is certainly a significant stride in the right direction as it creates openings for indigenous players.
And the focus on bringing props through needs to intensify all the way down to schools and underage levels.
But back to Wales. Gatland's willingness to put his faith in youngsters has always stood to him. It was he who capped Brian O'Driscoll back in 1999 and first brought Peter Stringer, Ronan O'Gara and Shane Horgan into the national set-up when he was Ireland coach.
With Wales, he had no hesitation turning to the likes of Alex Cuthbert, George North or Faletau and has been rewarded handsomely, as he was with Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton before them, both still only 23.
Alan Hansen once famously claimed that "you win nothing with kids" but this Welsh squad is defined by its youth and energy and now they are Grand Slam champions.
So where does that leave Ireland? Kidney made a decision to stick with his experienced core for a gruelling campaign and had they beaten England, that would have been justified, to an extent.
But the final defeat, and manner of it, has called that approach into question, and the selection policy for the summer tour to New Zealand now requires serious review.
The extent of that challenge cannot be over-emphasised. The first Test is in Auckland when the world champions will be determined to put on a show for their supporters in their first game since landing the title at the same ground last year.
Next up is their first Test in Christchurch since the earthquake, which provides further incentive and an emotional back-drop for the All Blacks. And, finally, it is onto Hamilton for the final Test when Irish thoughts of the beach and well-earned breaks traditionally favour the home side.
Ireland under Kidney would never travel assuming three defeats but, realistically, the prospects of victory are slim.
The nature of the ordeal could point the Ireland coach towards returning to his experienced campaigners for a tour to the toughest destination in world rugby but, following this demoralising Six Nations ending, there is an overwhelming need for freshness.
Much will depend on how players perform for their provinces over the next two months, but it would be hard to enthuse about a touring squad containing old reliables such as Paddy Wallace, Shane Jennings and Gordon D'Arcy, for all their qualities.
Hopefully, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell will be back in harness and there will still be a rich seam of experience running through the squad, but that does not reduce the need for the invigoration that youth provides. It is not a case of wholesale change, merely an injection of energy.
That could mean Paul Marshall instead of the unfortunately out-of-sorts Tomas O'Leary, Ian Madigan instead of Wallace as back-up out-half and maybe a back-row bolter like Dominic Ryan, if he gets the opportunity to state his case between now and the end of May.
It is hard not to look across the Irish Sea and feel pangs of envy and puzzlement, given the respective achievements at club level.
Perhaps the best course of action now when pondering Ireland's national selection policy is to ask a simple question: what would Wales do?