Tony Ward: Irish provinces showing signs of recovery ahead of festive derbies
Published 26/12/2015 | 02:30
Although buoyed by Ulster's European form of late there is a generally held consensus that Irish rugby is in transition.
Certainly by Heineken/Champions Cup standards set in the past we have dropped off the pace yet when it comes to bread and butter Pro12 we occupy positions two to five in the race for top four play-offs and top six Champions Cup qualification.
For a widely accepted onset of mediocrity it's not too bad a place to be. Not for a minute are we suggesting we drop standards and allow a lowest common denominator become the norm, but success is relative.
In that key respect we have been spoilt by what was undoubtedly a golden generation of indigenous rugby players allied to a much more level financial playing field.
I still believe success to be cyclical and continue to trust in the structures we have in place to insure the ongoing development of homegrown talent from knee-high up.
Even in what we perceive to be a time of crisis - bear in mind it is only Leinster mathematically out of the European equation with two pool games still to go - there are signs, to borrow from our economic friends, "of fresh buds growing and new shoots emerging".
Needless to say no-one is scrutinising form and putting that fine toothcomb through potential more than Joe Schmidt. Between injuries, retirement and loss of form, the preliminary Six Nations squad set for Carton House should and I have no doubt WILL possess a very new feel about it.
Lessons have been learnt from the World Cup experience and I suspect the head coach, while not needing to reinvent the wheel, will be adapting to meet the needs of the game at Test level as it is currently evolving.
To that end I sincerely hope that contrary to recent trends in the eagerly awaited festive inter-provincial derbies he allows the provincial coaches free rein in terms of selection.
The Pro12 is a much more meaningful competition now (the Italian issue apart) than it was prior to EPCR taking control of the Champions Cup. Meritocracy has indeed made a marked difference.
Ask me to name an Ireland XV to face the Welsh first up and I will struggle badly. Of course the main man has his favoured few in whom he trusts but right now I suggest his thought process in that key respect is scrambled.
Of the team that went under to Argentina, Rory Best, possibly Devin Toner and the half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and maybe Jamie Heaslip are foremost in their respective positions in his mind. I qualify that by saying that Best alone of that seasoned five is producing the kind of consistent form worthy of selection.
The issue in relation to those underperforming is in providing realistic alternatives in whom Schmidt feels he can rely. If ever the need for an old-style Final Trial existed it is now. There is of course no such thing, but there is a very real alternative over the next fortnight in the guise of the Christmas Pro12 derbies.
The key is in Schmidt giving all four provincial coaches their head to go for it by way of full-on first-choice selection.
On the back of that, all four grounds will be heaving as up-to-date form dictates Pro12 points as well as individual positioning ahead of Six Nations selections and of course a meaningful divvy-out of bragging rights too.
All things being equal Schmidt would be slow to give the green light domestically but he like the rest of us must be confused beyond reason as to what his starting line up to face the Welsh will be. It is only two months ago I know but lest you've forgotten the line up against the Pumas in Cardiff read: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, I Henderson; J Murphy, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Again I would make the point who, apart from Best, on fitness and form warrants automatic re-selection? Never but never have we said that about a Schmidt team since he took control. This is new territory for the coach too.
The trick as ever will be in balancing experience with some sort of form and new blood. The next two weeks and back to back inter-pros are essential to the selection process.
Injuries and loss of form has opened the door to others and therein lies the greatest challenge for Schmidt.
So what players specifically have, in modern game parlance, been "putting up their hands"?
For Ulster it's been mainly behind the scrum with the midfield triumvirate of Paddy Jackson, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall growing in confidence and competence at a different level.
Beyond that I would add Craig Gilroy (still only 24) and Andrew Trimble although a relative pensioner at 31 still providing that physicality and presence down either flank.
McCloskey is a big boy but with intricate skills to complement his more obvious gain-line breaking attributes while Jackson is on current form the undoubted number two to Sexton, with the latter under pressure to deliver in the coming games, providing he plays.
For Connacht so many young guns are emerging but on realistic form both Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran have to be in the preliminary frame.
Kieran Marmion, much like Luke McGrath at Leinster, is the next in line at No 9 but Eoin Reddan on consistency and impact is still pushing Murray closest.
At Leinster Rhys Ruddock (another relative rookie at 25) has stepped up to the mark on the blindside of the scrum and could well nail down that position to face the Welsh, although I suspect Schmidt may be tempted to play a Ruddock, Robin Copeland or a CJ Stander-type figure in the second-row should that need arise.
To that add Marty Moore, possibly Tadhg Furlong and Josh van der Flier, while Noel Reid and most particularly Gary Ringrose are worthy of inclusion in an extended squad.
Munster may not be winning but they're not that far away. Specifically James Cronin, Mike Sherry, Stander (although I hate the three-year principle) and Copeland have impressed of late, while Andrew Conway and Niall Scannell have hinted at greater things ahead.
Donnacha Ryan and Toner would appear the most likely lock combination in the absence of Iain Henderson and Paul O'Connell, but like Schmidt and just about everybody else your guess is as good as mine! These derbies have an added dimension.