Alan Quinlan: Irish new boys set for best week of their lives - and the worst
Every player will go through hell this week, waiting to see if they are the chosen one
I lie on my bed in room one hundred and something of the Glenview Hotel and can't stop wondering. Four years have passed since I was first called into an Ireland squad and one cap later, I still don't feel I belong. When I'm at Munster, it's different. I know the scene, know the lads, revel in the craic, enjoy the slagging, feel at home.
But here? Here isn't home. It's a hotel. The guy I share a room with is a friend but the others come in all shapes and sizes, the hardmen, the play-makers, the dreamers, the cynics. I can't pretend I know them.
How well do I know myself, though? That's a different question. I'm 26 years old, have been playing this game for 20 years, professionally for four, and yet something is missing. Self-doubt is plaguing me. Nerves are annoying me. We go training. I do well. I come back to the hotel. We eat. We chat around the dinner table but what do we talk about? I don't know and don't care.
All I'm thinking about is six o'clock. Because six o'clock is when Warren names the team.
Until then, part of you is in hell and part of you is buzzing, because this is what you've waited your whole life for, this - the chance to play for Ireland in the Six Nations, the chance to re-enact your dreams from growing up, when you played in the garden with your brothers and neighbours, and then for five Saturdays every spring you stayed inside and watched the Five Nations.
Now, you know that you could be the one that's watched. But you also know it might be like all the other times when Warren reads out someone else's name and you sit there poker-faced, pretending not to care when deep down all you want to do is scream.
Is this how Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander, Ultan Dillane or Stuart McCloskey will feel this week? I'll let you into a secret. Every player will feel a little like that. Every one of them will have that buzz, that sense of anticipation, that degree of wonder. Will I be picked? Will my name be called out? Or will it be someone else's?
It's three years later. I'm different now. I believe in what I can do. I've gone to a World Cup, scored a crucial try but banjaxed my shoulder in the process.
I have grown but so has the team. They're winning a Triple Crown, the same Triple Crown I dreamed of winning when I was that little boy on a farm in Tipperary, when Hugo MacNeill, Trevor Ringland, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Donal Lenihan were on the telly.
Could I have imagined that happening to me? For years I couldn't because the belief wasn't there. Now, though, the confidence is there but I'm not. I'm constantly slagged for being the best bag carrier in the history of the game. Good enough for the overall squad but not for the match-day one.
And we're back to where we were, sitting in a big room with high ceilings albeit with a different voice reading out the names.
"Marcus Horan, Shane Byrne, John Hayes, Malcolm O'Kelly, Paul O'Connell." You sit and stare. And when Eddie starts naming the second-rows, you tense up because you know what's next. If he says your name, like Warren did in the Glenview in 2001, your mood changes. First it's relief, then elation, then pride and then nerves again because you worry about letting people down rather than concentrate on making them proud. And that's how you feel when the news is good!
When it's bad, when it's Eric Miller or Simon Easterby's name that you hear, you stare straight ahead and don't take in any other names until Eddie says: "The replacements. No 16. . ." and you tune back in. And one name after another is read out and yours isn't in it and you tune back out.
Eddie stops talking. The room slowly empties. You sense the different buzz around the place. No one high-fives each other because those that are picked are conscious and respectful of those who are not. And you can't wait to get away. You find your own space and hold these stupid conversations in your head.
- "I need Eric or Simon to get hurt to get a chance."
- "Stop thinking that way. Remember how you were when your shoulder went in Adelaide."
- "Okay, but what if they miss a load of tackles? What then? Would that be okay?
- "No. That's bad karma. Those fellas are good players and good guys. Get over yourself. And quick."
So you do. You felt bad then for even having those brief thoughts and feel even worse now, all these years later, for even allowing things like that enter your head.
Yet it wasn't about Simon or Eric or Victor Costello or Keith Gleeson or anyone else. It was about you: you were pining to be in the team. You wanted it so much that in the rage of your disappointment, you allowed yourself some selfish thoughts.
But you also remember you came out of those moments of self-obsession and became a team player again for the rest of that camp. You held the tackle bags in training, you competed hard to contribute to the group and you wished the lads well. And most of all, you meant what you said.
This week, Stander, Tommy O'Donnell, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock, Chris Henry and Van der Flier will encounter some of those emotions. Yet I can't see it being completely the same. I can't see any of those guys suffering the self-doubt I was gripped with in my early years. The modern Irish international has more resilience.
Chris won a Six Nations in Paris two years ago; Tommy and Rhys are very good players who have bounced back from injuries; CJ arrived in Ireland with barely a word of English and has grown into Munster's captain and an outstanding performer; Josh is a genuine prospect; Sean and Jamie are world class.
We are talking about some serious depth here. And we're talking about a department where the game, so often, is won or lost. Remember Wellington in 2011 when Gatland's chop-tackle strategy left us cursing his tactical intelligence and left us out of the World Cup? And remember two years ago in the Aviva when our back-row dominated and we beat the Welsh so comfortably?
A functioning back-row can make or break a team because when it works, it dictates so much. If a team's back-row is on top, it can stop the opposition, knock them back, force turnovers, protect your half-backs, get your team on the front foot. If you are looking to get across the gain-line, more often than not, it's your back-row who will do that job.
So Joe Schmidt's selection this week is fascinating to watch from the outside. Already he's hinted that Nathan White and Jack McGrath will plug the gaps left behind by Mike Ross and Cian Healy's absence. The back three will generate debate but for me the most fascinating choice of all is in my old position.
O'Brien and Heaslip will start, no question. But who will join them? You can do a lot worse than look at Tommy, Josh or Chris. I'm a big fan of Rhys too. He has a hard edge that I like, and a touch of class. CJ? He has everything. He's a winner, a rare talent, a skilful ball carrier, a warrior.
And the idea of him combining with O'Brien and Heaslip excites me. I'll be waiting all week with a sense of anticipation for Joe's team selection, all the while remembering how awful I used to find those days, all the while wishing I was back there, wondering if this is the game when your name gets called.