Friday 22 March 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'If we can shatter glass ceiling at the World Cup and get to the last four with our key men intact, then anything is possible'

Expert View

Joe Schmidt will be looking to build more strength in depth in his Irish squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt will be looking to build more strength in depth in his Irish squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It has been quite a year for Irish rugby, one that has delivered beyond what we realistically would have expected this time 12 months ago.

But as rugby rides the crest of a wave never before seen in this country, it is important that we don't get caught standing still.

After all, the speed with which professional sport moves guarantees a cruel wipeout at the first sign of stagnation.

From an international perspective, it is imperative that we make the most of our success in 2018 by using it as a launchpad for bigger and better things.

The weight of World Cup expectation is bound to skew our international ambitions for 2019, but it is important that we aim to improve the game from top to bottom.

With that in mind, here is my rugby wish list for 2019:

 

SIX NATIONS

Few matches focus the mind better than England in Dublin, so you would expect there will be little danger of Ireland getting caught out by any World Cup far-sightedness when the Six Nations explodes to life in six weeks' time.

Much like the manner in which Leinster juggled their PRO14 and Champions Cup campaigns last year, Ireland will have to carefully manage two primary seasonal objectives in 2019, with the World Cup ultimately taking priority.

That being said, Joe Schmidt will still be looking to build more depth, add dimensions to the Irish attack, and learn some valuable lessons in the spring which could prove very useful next autumn.

This season will most likely be judged on whether Ireland reach the last four in Japan, so as pleasing as it would be to see a Grand Slam repeat, or the crown defended successfully, a loss or two would not be the end of the world, even though I hope that doesn't happen.

I would be very hopeful that come our final Six Nations game, away to Wales on March 16, Ireland will be in contention to be crowned champions.

REFEREEING

Rugby's complex laws and the level of on-field interpretation required make it one of the most difficult sports to referee, but I still think there is room for improvement.

World Rugby made the move to reduce the role of the TMO for the November Tests in the hope that it would shift more power back towards the on-field officials, and I understand the reasons for the trial.

Stop-start matches do the sport few favours but the most important thing, particularly in these huge international matches, is that the referees are getting the result-defining decisions correct, which still wasn't the case last month.

After talking to a number of fellow referees, Angus Gardner admitted that he was wrong not to penalise Owen Farrell for his 'no-arms' tackle on South Africa's Andre Esterhuizen, a decision that likely cost the Springboks victory at Twickenham.

Between the TMO, referee and two assistant referees, you have four rugby experts who between them should be nailing these crucial decisions.

While the reviews can be painful, I would happily take more TMO delays if it reduced the number of incorrect decisions.

There should have been two Castres red cards last weekend but the suspensions handed out will be of no benefit to Johann van Graan's side. We need to strive for more consistency.

I'd also like to see more ex-professionals take up refereeing. You don't need to have played at the top level to be an excellent official but getting more former players involved would only be good for the game.

PROVINCES

It may be surprising to hear this from a man of Munster stock, but my primary hope for the provinces on the whole is that Ulster and Connacht continue to build on their positive starts to this season.

For our professional game to be in peak condition we need all four provinces pushing each other, and a good step of progression this season would be for the quartet to each reach the PRO14 play-offs.

Getting three provinces into the last eight of the Champions Cup for the first time in five seasons is also within reach, as is getting all four provinces qualified for next season's top-tier competition.

Leinster are well out in front in terms of depth but the other provinces need to narrow that gap by building the right structures and continuing to recruit cleverly.

The interprovincial clashes have lost a bit of their bite in recent seasons, which is partly down to the player welfare systems we have in place, but a deeper pool of talent across the island would also help restore the excitement and intensity to those derby matches.

From a Munster point of view, I really want to see them lift a trophy. Peter O'Mahony spoke last season of how he was tired of learning lessons in semi-finals, and Munster's fans could really do with some silverware to celebrate too.

CLUB GAME

For all of the success in the professional ranks, we must remember not to leave the club game behind.

The standard in the All-Ireland League (AIL) is improving all the time and when you consider the extent to which the AIL has helped the likes of Joey Carbery, Tommy O'Donnell, Jack Carty, Dave Heffernan and Neil Cronin, it remains an essential pillar of Irish rugby.

It is heartening to see so many people filling stands for their provinces but equally it would be great for the game to see more of those faces showing an interest at club level, and to appreciate the quality that is there.

As someone who came from the club system, I know how important it can be in developing talent, particularly those who bloom a bit later.

There is no doubt that the club game has its issues and probably needs all the help it can get.

With that in mind, it would be great to see the IRFU continue to support the club game by building Branch-based facilities and financial support for clubs so that players in that system have every chance of progressing through the ranks.

LAW AND ORDER

The breakdown remains a bit of a mess and we need more clarity around poaching, entry points into rucks and timings around turnovers.

You watch some games and can't help but feel that legitimate turnovers are not being awarded - you are watching as a third man comes in to dislodge a poacher who has already had his hands on the ball for what, to him at least, probably seems an eternity.

The double-banking - sometimes even treble and quadruple - at the back of rucks is also becoming a particular bugbear of mine.

While it is legal, the constant lengthening of the ruck by adding a player at the back merely slows the game down and reduces an opportunity to disrupt or block a box-kick.

Similarly, the art of the maul is dying because players are getting away with disrupting them illegally, and I would like to see those infringements get a bit more attention.

The offside line stemming from the hindmost foot is another law of the game that could do with a revamp - defensive lines are getting away with being offside more regularly than ever.

Perhaps by insisting there must be daylight from the back of the ruck to the defensive line - a half-yard or yard of space perhaps - would help establish where the boundary really is and maybe reduce some of the heavy impacts right on the gain-line.

WORLD CUP

As the No 2-ranked side in the world, there is an argument that Ireland should be reaching a World Cup final to fulfil their potential. However, the reality is, considering our history in the competition, that reaching a first semi-final would be an achievement in itself.

With South Africa or New Zealand looming in a last-eight clash, the draw certainly could have been kinder, but the success or failure of the international team in 2019 will be most heavily determined by whether Joe Schmidt's side can break through that glass ceiling.

Having all of our front-line players fit for the tournament is a big wish for every Irish fan but the physicality of the game makes that an unlikely scenario.

I would like to see Ireland bring a few new attacking weapons to Japan. In a tournament setting you need a few extra tricks up your sleeve given Ireland's strengths are already well known.

If we can get to the last four with our key men intact, anything can happen. Then we can start to get really greedy with our hopes for 2019.

Irish Independent

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