'Best in world' Buckley gets full backing to take over from Hayes
TONY BUCKLEY has been backed to become a major force for Ireland with forwards coach Gert Smal saying the Munster man could become "one of the best tight-heads in the world" and former Ireland prop Emmet Byrne calling for him to be brought into the team as soon as possible.
John Hayes, who wins his 101st cap against Wales tomorrow, has been first-choice tight-head for Munster and Ireland for 10 years, with Buckley his regular understudy for province and country in recent seasons.
However, Byrne thinks it is "very unlikely" the 36-year-old Hayes will play at the World Cup next year and Smal's ringing endorsement of Buckley yesterday suggests the 29-year-old is ready to step up.
"I think he (Buckley) can be one of the best tight-heads in the world," said Smal yesterday, who was highly impressed by Buckley's display when he replaced Hayes for the last 20 minutes in the win over England two weeks ago.
"I think he can take over from John. He's at the stage now where he can start kicking on. I have a lot of confidence in him," added Smal.
"A year ago, I was worried about the prop situation, but after this year I think we've got something, not just in him, but also a little bit more depth in other players also."
Byrne, who won eight caps behind Hayes between 2001 and '03, says the clock is ticking. "There is a time factor here," said Byrne. "I would rank Buckley ahead of Hayes at the moment. John Hayes has contributed so much to Ireland and it would be an unpopular decision to drop him because of that but we have to look ahead.
"It's not impossible for Hayes to still be playing for Ireland at the World Cup, but you would have to say it is very unlikely. And you can't go into that tournament with a player who doesn't have experience of starting big games," he added.