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Choices are crucial for taking on the World

A week is certainly a long time in sport. Two weeks ago the Irish rugby public were unsurprisingly cock-a-hoop about Ireland's chances of winning against France in Paris. A poor second-half showing against the Italians on opening day was explained away easily enough by the pundits: this was just an Irish side that merely toddled in a game they had effectively already won.

Ireland were clearly saving the big performance for the big game, where they would just hit a switch and up it a gear. Cue full-time in the French capital and, after being beaten up by a bully dressed in blue, the Irish players looked downtrodden, exhausted and browbeaten.

What had gone so wrong?

Coach Declan Kidney is now faced with rebuilding confidence and a winning mentality before England in a week's time, the first acid test for him and his team since he took over. The match may yet confirm if Ireland just hit a minor speed bump in Paris or if they have been papering over the cracks and there is something more serious on the horizon for this so-called 'golden era' of rugby.

After last season's Grand Slam heroics a semi-final spot at next year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand seemed a realistic and achievable goal for Ireland, and it may well still be, but Saturday's mauling at the hands of the French probably sent Irish expectations crashing back to earth -- not such a bad thing.

After Saturday's match some of the Irish players seemed a little lost for answers or excuses -- even in the post-match interviews captain Brian O'Driscoll and his Leinster team-mate Gordon D'Arcy seemed to suggest it was a timely wake-up call for them, a reality check and a sharp learning curve. Probably best that it happens now then, so that at least there is enough time to assess the wreckage before the countdown to rugby's biggest prize in 18 months.

Ireland have still only won twice in Paris in 50 years, yet we expected things to be so different this time; when that didn't happen we instantly predicted doom and gloom or, as some headlines ran, "the end of a golden era."

The simple truth is this: Ireland continue to do remarkably well at all levels of international, provincial and underage rugby. But last weekend showed there is still a significant gap between the southern hemisphere triumvirate of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand -- and France in the northern hemisphere. Granted, Ireland drew with Australia and defeated South Africa in the Autumn series, but remember they were at home. At the World Cup, if Ireland are going to make any sort of dent then they will have to win games away, and in their off-season as well.

So what does Declan Kidney need do to give this Irish team to best possible chance at rugby's next 'Olympics'?

Some of the good work has already been done for him by the IRFU when years ago they lured many of the top Irish players home from abroad and protected them from playing too many games, unlike in France or England where top players play nearly double the amount of games as the Irish players.



irreplaceable

Along with the provinces, the IRFU also facilitated the movement of world-class coaches to these shores to join the indigenous ones -- including the likes of Gert Small, Les Kiss and Alan Gaffney to name but a few -- serious and respected rugby men who have worked with some of the best teams in the world.

So, given the Irish players are obviously well conditioned and well coached, what are the main areas of concern that last week's loss to France again highlighted?

As far as future team selection is concerned, Ireland must travel to the World Cup with a minimum of two quality players in each position, and in many key areas they have that already.

At least Kidney has now unearthed a viable long-term alternative to Ronan O'Gara at out-half, something Ireland certainly did not have a year or so ago. I predict Sexton will start next week against England, but as long as both players stay sound then there are at least two quality players and goal kickers who can effectively run a backline.

Ireland's continued success also depends on the good health of the world's best back, Brian O'Driscoll.

The Irish scrum still remains the biggest problem for Kidney, and while Cian Healy has made great strides at loose head prop, who will take over from the irreplaceable John Hayes?

Kidney may also have to look to other places in the rugby world to find an Irish-qualified tight-head because time is running out. Like Hayes, back-rower David Wallace is another faithful servant who will be hard to replace when he decides to go, his heir apparent at the moment seems to be either Shane Jennings or Sean O'Brien, but, in such a crucial area, the options are sparse.

Elsewhere, the second row is fairly well covered for the next few years with at least three to four good young options, as is No 6 and No 8, with the relatively young Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip both bona fide world-class players.

Ireland can still remain confident in terms of the composition of their team at the next World Cup, but Kidney will know that the pressure is on to find another O'Driscoll or O'Connell to kick-start another 'golden generation' when they return, and that may not be so easy.


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