Irish rugby needs a swift and powerful response to the disappointment of another early World Cup exit
WE'VE been here before. The need for Irish rugby to pick itself up after World Cup disappointment is a four-yearly exercise dating back to the inaugural tournament in 1987.
Never more so than four years ago, when a shattered Irish squad returned from France in a state of bewildered disillusionment.
On that occasion, the provinces provided a welcome rebound opportunity, with Munster going on to claim the Heineken Cup and Leinster clearing a significant psychological hurdle by winning the Magners League, which led to their European triumph the following season.
Internationally, Ireland were unable to shake off the shadow of the World Cup as Eddie O'Sullivan struggled on to a final underwhelming Six Nations campaign.
However, the provinces played a vital role that season by providing a platform for the likes of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip, Keith Earls and Tomas O'Leary (surplus to requirements at France 2007) to establish their international credentials.
A similar exercise is required this time around. With the core of the Ireland squad -- the oldest at the World Cup -- unlikely to be around for England 2015, now is the time for younger provincial players to put their hands up.
The Six Nations is three months away but with Wales and France carrying extra confidence after their World Cup achievements and England driven by the desire to prove their critics wrong, it is shaping up to be one of the most competitive of all.
Ireland cannot go into that tournament with any World Cup exit residue if they are to prosper in that company.
The hangover cure starts now -- and it starts with the provinces.
The Welsh caught Ireland on the hop in Wellington but, after a winless August, the Irish players were buzzing after four successive victories in the pool stages, and winning with their provinces is the best way to try to get over their World Cup disappointment.
Of course, something has to give next weekend when the provinces play each other, but there are encouraging signs that Ireland's players will be able to get back into the winning habit.
Munster and Leinster have been going well in the Pro 12, with Connacht and Ulster mixing the good with the not so good, and the returning World Cup contingent increases the provinces' prospects of further victories (although not so much in Connacht's case).
It is also vital that the provinces start their Heineken Cup campaigns well in a couple of weeks; Irish rugby needs to see the next generation in big knock-out matches next spring.
Ireland did not play all that badly in their quarter-final defeat, but Wales had much more to offer in attack, as the three-tries-to-one result testifies.
We are heading into the toughest part of the season, weather-wise, but evidence of progressive offence is a priority if Irish rugby is to develop post-New Zealand. This is not a reinventing the wheel exercise -- the primary requirements are a general movement towards the off-loading game that served Leinster so well last season and, above all, an emphasis on hitting the ball from depth.
Arriving home from the World Cup to see Irish players taking on static ball or shovelling laterally along the back-line would be too much to bear.
The provinces have their individual goals, but the national side comes first and Ireland needs younger players getting the chance to prove themselves.
With only four professional franchises, this is easier said than done and this is where national interests must be prioritised, particularly if the progress of a player with Ireland potential is being compromised by an overseas import.
Obviously, when you are dealing with foreigners of the quality of Isa Nacewa, BJ Botha, Ruan Pienaar or Henry Fa'afili, who are key to their provinces' hopes of success, Irish alternatives will miss out, but the overall policy has to centre on promoting Irish-qualified youngsters through the provincial system.
With one eye on England 2015, there are several positions where Ireland's options urgently need to be broadened.
There are unlikely to be wholesale changes for the Six Nations, nor should there be, but there is a summer tour to New Zealand at the end of the season which could prosper from the provinces throwing up candidates in these key areas:
Open-side: Sean O'Brien did an excellent job in the No 7 jersey at the World Cup but there is a dire need for more options here, with a focus on the traditional ball-winning and support skills displayed so impressively in recent weeks by the likes of Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton and David Pocock.
Thus, it was extremely encouraging to see Peter O'Mahony and Dominic Ryan selected at open-side for Munster and Leinster respectively in last night's Pro12 matches as these are two young players who ooze potential in a problem area for Ireland.
That was offset by the utterly infuriating sight of Willie Faloon failing to make the Ulster squad for today's match against the Scarlets.
Mike McComish is a decent back-row but not a natural No 7; nor is Chris Henry, who will slot in there if Robbie Diack comes off the bench. Faloon is a specialist and needs a run of games to show his quality -- otherwise, he would be advised to seek exposure elsewhere when his contract expires at the end of the season.
Prop: Cian Healy and Mike Ross are streets ahead of the competition, with Tom Court providing acceptable cover, while Tony Buckley's progress at Sale will be monitored closely.
However, there needs to be more names in the mix. Jamie Hagan's move to Leinster was intended to propel him up the ladder but he has had a slow start, while the presence of quality imports Heinke van der Merwe and Nathan White is a challenge for Hagan and Jack McGrath. Ulster selected four Irish props in their squad for today's match, but the arrival of John Afoa means Paddy McAllister and Declan Fitzpatrick will struggle for tight-head exposure.
Munster are still depending on the veteran pair of Marcus Horan and John Hayes behind their South African starters of Wian du Preez and Botha, which means Connacht's Brett Wilkinson could be the likeliest candidate to step up.
Second-row: Not quite the 'crisis' it is being made out to be; not as long as Donnacha Ryan, Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner continue to get the game time they have been afforded this weekend, as all three have the capacity to produce at international level.
Centre: There are options here also. Eoin O'Malley, Fergus McFadden, Danny Barnes, Darren Cave and Nevin Spence are chief among them, while trying out Luke Fitzgerald in midfield is a worthwhile exercise, especially with Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble impressing on the wing in the past few months.
Out-half: Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara are in situ -- it is a question of who is coming up behind them and how much provincial game time they can garner.
Niall O'Connor should get plenty with Connacht but is probably behind Ian Keatley in the pecking order, the problem being that Keatley is now second choice to O'Gara with Munster.
The other name to be considered is Leinster's Ian Madigan. Leinster Schools Cup rugby is placed on such a pedestal that there is always the danger its former stars carry the desire to be 'Johnny Hero' into the adult game, but there is no doubting Madigan's talent (three tries from six appearances this season) and, following injury to Mat Berquist, there should be ample opportunity for proper assessment.