Another Grand Slam would be nice but, says Hugh Farrelly, Declan Kidney will have an eye on the World Cup
THERE'S a story that sums up the unremitting grimness of Irish rugby in the 1990s and the relationship between the underperforming team and their union masters.
The game had just turned professional and Ireland were down to play France in Paris -- a venue where they had not won since Jesus was varnishing wood (or 1972 to be more exact) during a period when players have since admitted that they were "beaten before we got on the plane".
Still, it may have helped had they not been squashed down the back of the plane as committee men and their wives lorded it up the front as happened on this occasion. Furthermore, the buses that collected the Irish party from the airport also prioritised the blazer-and-fur brigade with the result that weary players had to carry their own bags up the hotel stairs as the Parisian jollyers jammed the lifts.
A decade-and-a-half later, there is no question as to where the priority lies now. After those initial feet-finding years of professionalism, the IRFU have developed a successful system designed to extract the maximum from their international contingent. The benefits of this can be seen from the impressive statistic which reveals that Ireland have won 36 out of their 50 Six Nations matches since 2000 -- level with France -- picking up four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam along the way.
Eddie O'Sullivan has received deserved credit for putting the building blocks in place and creating a consistency of performance and now his successor as Ireland coach Declan Kidney has taken the team to a new level with more elevation planned in time for the 2011 World Cup.
And that is the key. Ending the 61-year wait for the Grand Slam was the primary motivation last year and was realised through a pragmatic game-plan and judicial selection policy. Now, the targets have shifted.
While it would be wonderful to secure back-to-back Slams, which could yet be achieved, the over-riding priority is to continue to build towards 2011 with experienced, quality depth in every position (as opposed to '07) and with the mental strength and confidence that comes from consistent winning rugby with a settled squad.
Kidney likes setting targets and there are a few that present themselves heading into this tournament. First up, Ireland have never won the opening game of a new decade dating back to the 1880s, the closest they have come was a draw with France in 1950.
That is a statistic that should change against Italy next weekend before Ireland attempt to tackle another target on Kidney's hit-list -- winning in Paris -- something they have not managed since Brian O'Driscoll did his three-try thing in 2000.
Do that, and the back-to-back Grand Slam looks on as an increasingly desperate-looking England are vulnerable at home and Wales and Scotland in Croke Park are eminently takeable (with due respect afforded to what promises to be a formidable Scottish scrum).
Then, post-Six Nations, the targets will be a victory in one of the Tri-Nations countries (something not achieved since '79) and a historic first win over New Zealand with June's Test followed by a second tilt in Dublin next November.
Throw in the fact that Ireland have not lost an international since the All Blacks played in Croker 12 matches ago and it's a pretty healthy position to be in which creates the intriguing possibility of Ireland using the Six Nations as a means to an end while still not threatening their upward progress with debilitating defeat.
With the dark days of the 1990s fresh in the mind, this is pinch-yourself territory for Irish rugby followers. So what can we expect in specific terms?
Well, it would seem reasonable to assume that both Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara will get significant game time during the tournament, providing Ireland with two quality options in the key out-half position.
To continue his international development, it may be prudent to see how Sexton fares in the testing environments of the Stade de France and Twickenham but Ireland will be well served by either player as the Leinster man continues to show the form and temperament for the big occasion and O'Gara's qualifications are as healthy as ever.
Then there is the front-row. The remarkable John Hayes remains a key figure on the tight-head side with Cian Healy set to further his international education on the far side of the scrum, but we should also see the vastly improved Tom Court get more than the cameo roles he has been granted to date with Marcus Horan, Mike Ross and Tony Buckley providing back-up to the top three.
Though Rory Best's sooner than expected recovery from injury should bring him back into the Six Nations equation, it would be good to see Sean Cronin get a sustained opportunity to show his worth as the Connacht player has been earmarked for the World Cup squad in two years' time.
In the second-row, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell are unquestionably the No 1 pairing but Donnacha Ryan and Leo Cullen could get significant opportunities to display their credentials while Devin Toner, on the fringes at Leinster, will be desperate for game time in the 'A' internationals.
The back-row of Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and David Wallace is set in stone at this stage but the back-up issue could be addressed by having a look at Sean O'Brien, Shane Jennings and the increasingly impressive Kevin McLaughlin at various stages.
At scrum-half, Eoin Reddan, Peter Stringer and the rejuvenated Isaac Boss will scrap it out for audition time behind Tomas O'Leary but with three such experienced performers, exposure is not a big an issue, although Stringer could use the game time.
The first-choice three-quarter line reads Gordon D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Keith Earls (in Luke Fitzgerald's absence), Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney but there are quality options available here and Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble could experience international returns at some stage while Earls could also get a run at outside centre as preparation for the unthinkable possibility of something happening to O'Driscoll down the road.
It is an incredibly strong position for Kidney to be in. The goalposts have moved and there is no longer the manifesto to "win every game" that O'Sullivan spoke about during his time in charge, which he used as explanation for a selection policy which did little to develop the second tier.
That is not to say that this tournament will be used as a means of wild experimentation such as that employed by France coach Marc Lievremont when he took over a couple of seasons ago. It could be argued that Lievremont's 'come all ye' approach unearthed a few gems who will adorn their World Cup challenge next year but Kidney is likely to adopt a far more measured, controlled rotation policy.
Then there is the gameplan. There was definite evidence in November of a more expansive approach and, with a backline bursting with attacking ability, and a pair of out-halves equipped to bring the best out of them, further expansion makes complete sense.
This can be buttressed by a measly defensive system under the astute guidance of Les Kiss while forwards coach Gert Smal will look to build on the set-piece solidity which characterised Ireland's '09 efforts.
The ideal, and not unrealistic, scenario is another Grand Slam achieved while affording invaluable experience to a variety of understudies with a more fluid attacking approach.
The greatest obstacle is the French in Paris. The Heineken Cup is a reasonable barometer of the health of the game in the respective European countries and there is no doubt that France and Ireland are ahead of the posse.
However, if Ireland were to lose in the Stade de France -- or even in Twickenham -- there would not be the witch-hunt that would have ensued in previous years as last year's Grand Slam means Kidney and his management team have a clear run until the World Cup.
Irish rugby has come a hell of a long way since players trooped onto flights with heads bowed in expectation of another demoralising defeat. The national team has provided a welcome boost to a country worn down by the woes and scandals which have dominated our political and financial spheres.
Ireland's property industry has been particularly badly hit over the past couple of years but, in terms of building towards a brighter future for Irish rugby, the 2010 Six Nations represents another worthy investment on the path to eventual World Cup achievement.