Tuesday 15 October 2019

Victor Costello: 'Only being an injury away from Irish selection has never been more true'

Seán O’Brien’s departure will signal the end of an era at Leinster
Seán O’Brien’s departure will signal the end of an era at Leinster

Victor Costello

At the start of the season, Irish rugby was in a state of utopia.

Leinster were aiming for their fifth European title and Ireland were looking forward to a robust Six Nations title defence.

Six months later both titles are still available but the landscape has changed.

Due to both club and country success the rival countries have placed a lot of emphasis on the structure of the Irish and provincial systems and their game-plans on match day.

Leinster's success this season will be even more important than before due to the nature of this World Cup season as players will need to find the balance between club and country and will need a solid foundation of consistency and momentum at club level to maximise the opportunities on offer.

When expectation is high without performances to match them the pressure comes on coaches and players to implement a quick fix to get back to winning ways.

Dabbling with selection in a Six Nations is brave but when it goes wrong the fall-out can have dire consequences.

The scramble to recover Ireland's campaign provided us with a squad of players low in belief and energy.

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Luxury

The Irish management have the luxury of overseeing a faultless provincial and academy system where the IRFU can call the shots from afar if necessary.

In comparison to other home nations, the Irish management have it easy, even more so with the continued success of the provinces.

With the Irish team struggling to find form, the pressure will come on Leinster to be the backbone of the World Cup challenge.

Leinster are currently to the fore but that is not saying Munster and Ulster won't compete too.

For Leo Cullen, the rehabilitation of players, mentally and physically, over the coming months is vital to the rebuilding of Irish hopes.

Leinster will ease back into the PRO14 this weekend away to Zebre, those not involved in the Irish set-up will have had a break and those coming back into contention after injury will be eager to get some game time no matter who the opposition is.

Even with the Six Nations player drain this game is an ideal opportunity to keep blooding the younger guys.

The fact there is no meaningful or flagship game ahead until Edinburgh away the week before the Champions Cup quarter-final means that the next few games will feature mixed selections.

Players like Max Deegan and Caelan Doris are battling for senior team inclusion and others like Scott Penny and Paddy Patterson are climbing through the ranks with impressive debuts so far this season.

With little time to perform, this block of games is an ideal time for them to perform in what is not a high-profile time for Leinster but vital nonetheless.

This blend of youth and experience has worked well and the next few games should not be any different.

Conor O'Brien's recent performances have potentially prompted Noel Reid to sign for Leicester next season.

Reid has arguably had his best season to date and will be of value to the Premiership side who have had a long tradition of respect for Leinster players.

Penny is another player who is making the right noises in a competitive back-row.

Many who have come before him have had immense talent but the 19-year-old Penny has an abrasive nature which will add to any back-row unit.

There will be disappointment from this group when European selection comes but performances, no matter what the competition or opposition, rarely go unnoticed for the future.

The traditional idea of being only an injury away from Irish selection has never been more true this season.

The ability to maintain standards is always tested at this stage of the season as beating Zebre will be taken as a given.

What we should learn from previous World Cup experiences is the need for squad depth.

Problems

With the current injury problems in the Ireland set-up, we are seeing a microcosm of what could lie ahead by the time Japan rolls around.

For the Leinster management, the quarter-final on the horizon against Ulster will come around quickly.

While Irish rugby is going through different levels of emotions, time is still moving on back at the provinces.

Having Fergus McFadden back available will lift the squad with his ambition and leadership.

By the time the play-offs come around, all of these criteria should fall into place and when they do the knock-on effect for Ireland will be paramount.

Finally, the loss of Sean O'Brien at the end of the season signals the end of an era for players, management and fans.

He will no doubt add more than just his outstanding playing ability to the recently rejuvenated exiles club.

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