Why this Red must turn Blue
Published 20/02/2012 | 05:00
THE Ireland squad met up again in Carton House last night, removed from the Paris debacle, refreshed and ready to get stuck into what feels like a new Six Nations campaign.
Much has been made of the physical and emotional drain of playing four internationals on successive weekends, but while it will undoubtedly test Ireland coach Declan Kidney's management skills and resources, it is the type of test he relishes and is well equipped to handle.
As for the players, they just want to play and this is an opportunity to create some momentum against Italy and maintain it over the following three weekends -- it could work out extremely well.
The Italians will come into sharp focus as the week progresses and Ireland's opening defeat to Wales and the obvious organisational improvement under new Italian coach Jacques Brunel will banish any complacency. However, there are a couple of individual issues to assess first, starting with the ongoing out-half debate.
There is an assumption that the same XV that started against France will line out against Italy -- and that may well be the case -- but Ronan O'Gara did his case for reinstatement no harm at all with another assured display in Munster's win over Treviso on Saturday.
While Jonathan Sexton, along with the rest of Ireland's starting team, did not play at the weekend -- allowing the Leinster man time to recover from the knock that threatened his participation in Paris -- O'Gara's display was a timely reminder of his compelling form this season.
He has a phenomenal record against Italy which stands at 13 matches, 13 wins and 180 points scored (an average of nearly 14 points per victory) -- it might still not be enough to reclaim the No 10 jersey, but those statistics represent a powerful argument.
Then there is Donnacha Ryan, who also played his part in Munster's win at the Stadio Monigo. The 28-year-old is having a big season, forcing his way into the Munster second-row next to Paul O'Connell and building on the favourable impression he created at the World Cup.
He has not been able to oust Donncha O'Callaghan, who has also been going well this season, from the Ireland engine room but Ryan's form has made him a prized commodity with his contract up at the end of the season.
While back-rows are 10-a-penny in European and world rugby, quality second-rows are thin on the ground and English and French clubs are known to have been sniffing around Ryan in recent months.
The man Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal described as having the potential to be the 'next O'Connell' during the World Cup, is extremely unlikely to move abroad just as his career is taking off, but the issue of where he plays in Ireland is a live one.
Munster are obviously keen to keep him and the draw of the Nenagh man's native province is powerful, particularly as he has forced his way into the starting line-up after years as a talented and versatile understudy.
However, while parochial passion will always be a powerful tool in rugby, the professional era has placed an emphasis on pragmatism and it does not make a great deal of sense for the IRFU to be paying top dollar for three centrally contracted second-rows (O'Connell and O'Callaghan have signed contract extensions) when only two can start.
It would also afford Ian Nagle greater exposure at Munster, where he has been unable to get consistent game time to back-up his excellent contribution to the win over Australia nearly a year-and-a-half ago.
After the Steven Sykes misfire, Leo Cullen being injured and in his mid-30s and Brad Thorn (whom Leinster hope will arrive in early March) a short-term solution, Leinster are in the market for a high-class, experienced second-row -- preferably Irish-qualified under the IRFU's new recruitment policy -- and Ryan ticks all the boxes.
There is a history of movement between the provinces going back to the 1990s when Liam Toland, Paul Wallace, David O'Mahony, Barry Everitt and Brian O'Meara all swapped their native Munster for a switch to Dublin, but Ryan would be the first example of a front-line player making the jump in the professional era.
Stephen Keogh and Trevor Hogan were fringe Munster players when they moved to Leinster, as were James Downey, Kieran Lewis, Niall Ronan and Felix Jones when they travelled the opposite direction.
However, while Ryan transferring to Leinster would not be a good deal for Munster -- who would strengthen their rival's hand with a player that they have invested many years in bringing through -- it would be the sensible move for Irish rugby at a time when there is an over-riding emphasis on making the best use of relatively meagre resources.
Rugby supporters should also find out this week whether Tomas O'Leary's interest in a move to France (first revealed in the Irish Independent last November) will be realised. The scrum-half's situation is different to Ryan's in that he has fallen down the international pecking order, but, if he can get assurance from Ireland management that they would monitor his Top14 progress, it could have similar beneficial effects for player and country.
Finally, the rigorous nature of the next few weeks is going to bring some forgotten names back into the equation and do not be surprised if Geordan Murphy and Tony Buckley are brought back from exile. Needs must.