Investment in old guard can yield scrum success - Feek
Furlong backed to come back hungrier after set-back, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30
When the 2019 World Cup kicks off in Japan, Ireland's current starting tighthead prop Mike Ross will be 39, while his back-up Nathan White will turn 38 during the pool stages.
A Six Nations freebie at the beginning of the cycle that builds towards that point would appear to be the perfect opportunity to engage in a spot of succession planning by blooding some youngsters, but Joe Schmidt has resisted the urge and will take on Italy with his veterans in the Nos 3 and 18 jerseys.
Tadhg Furlong may be the heir apparent, but his chastening experience in Paris appears to have set him back and he must wait for another opportunity.
"Sometimes if you get a taste and then you're put back in your box for a bit it makes you hungrier too," was scrum coach Greg Feek's take on the 23-year-old's demotion to Leinster midway through the Six Nations. "But we always chose a team that's best for that week."
The theory that props must bide their time before being trusted is being sorely tested this Six Nations, however.
Before the France game, Furlong pointed out that Wales' starting props Rob Evans and Samson Lee were both in his age group at underage and on Saturday they will go for the title against England at Twickenham.
Warren Gatland has deliberately begun the process of replacing his elder statesmen with new blood, Guy Noves has done the same with another 23-year-old in Jefferson Poirot, but Schmidt has resisted the temptation.
"I think experience, and building experience and winning games, you've got to take all that into account," Feek said of the selection in the front-row.
"And what's right for this part of the game and what's right for that part of the game, and who's got the best balance.
"We try to make sure that we're not throwing someone out there for the sake of it either, and there has to be a degree of them earning it."
The national scrum coach says there is no concern about the fact that the two tightheads in the matchday 23 are well into their 30s.
"It would be if they were running around like that," he said. "These days, the age factor's one thing but performance is the other. These two have been together since the World Cup, we've invested in them for this season,
"Other guys have been in with us, had a look; obviously Marty (Moore) is out injured, Cian (Healy) has come back so there's different scenarios that we've looked at and that is important."
Whatever about Feek's positivity, the fact that Ireland have veterans at Nos 1 and 2 in their pecking order for such a pivotal position suggests that it remains a problem.
Ross has started 26 of Schmidt's games in charge, while White has won 11 caps since making his debut last summer.
Moore had been the most regular back-up to his Leinster team-mate and has never started for Ireland, coming off the bench 10 times, while Furlong (4 caps), Rodney Ah You (3), Michael Bent (2), the now retired Declan Fitzpatrick (2) and Stephen Archer (1) have all had an opportunity.
At 25, Moore has had a head-start on Furlong but hasn't been available to Schmidt in a year and is off to Wasps for three seasons this summer which is likely to harm his chances of playing for Ireland.
Ulster's South African project player Wiehahn Herbst becomes Irish-qualified in 2017, while Archer is back in the picture after overcoming a serious neck injury recently.
Munster are bringing John Andress back to Ireland from Edinburgh and he'll become an option, while they could also lure another 'special project' who would qualify in time for Japan.
Feek is confident that thing are looking good when it comes to depth at tighthead.
"It does take three years or so to develop someone. During those three years you have ups and downs and little critiques here and there and then it's just a matter of letting them go and then learning while they do it," he said.
"Tadhg's still going really well. Finlay (Bealham) has come in and covered both sides and I think he's going pretty well as well. You've got Marty there and then you've got Wiehahn Herbst up there in Ulster who's going all right, Stephen Archer's just come back.
"There's a few guys knocking on the door loosehead-wise, there's two or three loosies up in Ulster going good, Denis Buckley, even Peter Dooley the other day went well.
"One day you can think there's not much coming through, then you can wake up in the morning and there's a whole lot ready to go."