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Kate Rowan: Irish rugby going through upheavals worthy of Downton Abbey

IRELAND’S "game of two halves" against the Springboks is not the only split occupying the rugby world. The northern versus southern hemisphere debate is raging, particularly with the Argentinians outclassing the Welsh.

It put me in mind of period drama Downton Abbey.

One of the big draws of Downton is how its writer, Oscar winner Julian Fellows has so masterfully woven the rapid social change from the late Edwardian period to the beginning of the inter-war years. All who inhabit Downton Abbey are a metaphor for the period of great transition in British society.

Right now, Irish rugby is experiencing a huge phase of change. It might not be as drastic as Downton with corsets being ditched. It could be argued that what lost Ireland the match against South Africa was a general lack of experience.

Rather than saying, “we didn’t win because Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell were injured”, we need to face that both are reaching the twilight years of their rugby careers. We have to start making room for new faces, regardless of their service.

There were also injuries to the younger guard, Seán O’Brien, Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney. In the case of Kearney, there has been no clear-cut understudy at fullback. Now, Simon Zebo looks to be a viable option in the future.

With precious ranking points at stake with a view to the 2015 Rugby World Cup draw, now may not be the ideal time to ring the changes but it was going to have to happen at some stage.

Irish rugby hasn’t been shaken up suddenly, changes have been slowly creeping in since the 2009 Grand Slam success with players such as O’Brien, Cian Healy and Mike Ross not on the pitch that famous day in Cardiff, now seen as totems of the pack, as well as Jonathan Sexton.

A good marker of how Irish rugby has been in a state of flux for the past few seasons struck me during the post-match media interviews on Saturday.

Let’s get out of the way, the fact that new captain Jamie Heaslip’s Movember moustache and side parting could be right at home in Downton. As could have the Springbok’s natty post match attire of traditional bottle green blazers trimmed with gold paired with matching woollen waistcoats!

Remembering the test against South Africa in 2010, in the media engagements Donnacha O’Callaghan and despite not starting that night, Ronan O’Gara were two of the most popular interviewees.

Another player who entered the media scrum was Healy after earning his tenth cap and was still very much one of the “young fellas”. On Saturday he made his 34th international appearance, one journalist suggesting in the match build-up that the Clontarf man was a “veteran” of the side which, the 25 year-old batted off with a laugh.

The constant of both media sessions was Tommy Bowe who against the Boks in 2010 earned his 33rd cap and has just reached his half centaury, now very much perceived as a squad stalwart.

Joining the Monaghan man in the mix was Ulster teammate Chris Henry upon gaining his third test cap and first on Irish soil. Despite being only eight months younger than Bowe, Henry’s starting appearance was due mainly to the back row injury crisis and successful transition to covering the openside for his province.

The man who wore the number seven jersey in the 2010 fixture was the recently retired David Wallace. The Munster star, sitting in the stands this time around, happy to pose with fans for photos and is kick-starting life after rugby, opening a sweet shop in his native Limerick.

Add into the equation of events that transpired last weekend, the addition of four new caps in the shape of starter Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent and home grown David Kilcoyne and Iain Henderson from the bench and it is true to say whether the time is right we are at the cusp of a new era in Irish rugby.

One of reasons Downton Abbey has proved so popular is how despite a series of dramas engulfing characters in tumultuous times; the conclusion is nearly always satisfying. Here’s hoping that after facing Fiji and the crunch encounter against Los Pumas, there will be a happy ending for this Irish rugby squad in transition.

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