Sunday 18 February 2018

November series ideal chance to banish tour demons

Long wait is almost over as Ireland bid to put pain of All Blacks whitewash to bed, writes Jim Glennon

One of the consequences of our magnificent summer of sport has been the ease with which we have pushed to the further recesses of our minds the 60-0 annihilation of Ireland by New Zealand in Waikato Stadium on June 23. Before we even begin to address the challenge lying in store in the upcoming November series, we should dwell on that black day for Irish rugby.

Statisticians don't deal in circumstances, whether in victory or defeat, and nor should we. No circumstances, mitigating or otherwise. Sixty points to nil. Simple. Sixty-zip. Simple. Nine tries to nothing. Couldn't be more simple.

Any squad, in any sport, amateur or professional, would be rattled to the core by such a reversal. Most, however, would have the advantage of a relatively immediate opportunity to regroup, to banish the ghosts of such a cathartic experience. Regrettably for Ireland, the structures of world rugby means it's over four months before the opportunity arises. Hardly a psychologist's recommended course of therapy. In reality, we've parked the horrors of Waikato.

The November international series, a lot like the June series in the southern hemisphere, has never quite captured the public's imagination. It is perceived as more of a stocking-filler than a series of bona fide sporting contests. This time, however, it's different. Waikato saw to that. This November series, for better or worse, is a pivotal point in the history of Irish rugby in the professional era.

The outstanding performances of the national team in the first decade of the new century and the recent dominance of Europe's primary club competition provide, rightly or wrongly, the prism through which the performance of the squad, and particularly its management team, will be viewed.

South Africa (November 10), Fiji (November 17) and Argentina (November 24) provide the opposition, and the opportunity to banish the appalling spectre of New Zealand while garnering the ranking points necessary to maintain our place in the top eight, and the crucial seeding for the World Cup 2015 draw in December.

The primary feature of the squad announced last week by Declan Kidney is the introduction of four uncapped players -- Ulster's 21-year-old centre Luke Marshall and 20-year-old flanker Iain Henderson, Munster's 23-year-old prop David Kilcoyne and, most notably, Leinster's 26-year-old hooker Richardt Strauss. The South African becomes eligible under the residency rules on Thursday next and will probably see at least some game-time against his native country. Thomond Park for the Fiji game is the more likely venue for his three currently uncapped colleagues to make their international debuts.

The major feature of the group is the dearth of options at fullback. The absence through injury of Rob Kearney, Gavin Duffy and Luke Fitzgerald have combined to provide Kidney with a major headache, exacerbated by the quality of Kearney's contribution in this year's Six Nations. The return from injury on Friday night of Munster's Felix Jones wasn't only timely but impressive too, and his introduction to the squad is now likely.

Tommy Bowe's appearance in Newport on Friday night was also significant -- he established his reputation originally from the full-back position at Queen's University and would present a viable, if slightly risky, option, as would Keith Earls, another with experience in the position.

If the make-up of the back three is impossible to predict at this stage -- it will be largely determined by the availability for and selection at full-back -- it's in stark contrast to the inside backs, where the coach is unlikely to look beyond the Leinster midfield axis of Sexton, D'Arcy and O'Driscoll, with Conor Murray, notwithstanding a dip in form, retained at scrumhalf.

If the front row of Healy, Best and Ross picks itself, the opposite is the case with the back row and the continued decline of Donncha O'Callaghan leaves a vacancy in the engine-room alongside Paul O'Connell. Donnacha Ryan's performances in New Zealand were some of the very few positives to be taken from the tour and he is first in the queue to partner O'Connell, even if Connacht's Mike McCarthy isn't far behind.

The fitness of Stephen Ferris will be crucial to the composition of the back-row and, with Jamie Heaslip firmly in situ at No 8, it will be very much a case of mixing and matching the right combinations from those available to the demands of the particular opposition. Regardless of the opposition however, the continued absence of an out-and-out openside and the ball-carrying abilities of Seán O'Brien will be sorely felt, especially against the Springboks.

November in Ireland was traditionally a dark month of penitential abstinence and self-sacrifice, but hopefully what transpired in Waikato in June was ample suffering for this year. Question marks over the quality and end-of-season mindsets of the visitors, particularly the Argentinians, could well afford us a badly needed opportunity for renewal.

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