Monday 22 January 2018

The Continuity IRFU: McLaughlin's role in Irish success can't be overstated

THE November internationals are already beginning to fade into the distant memory as other, fresh challenges appear to confront us. However, their importance does demand further analysis, before they disappear into the mists of time where romance and fantasy can often overwhelm reflective deliberation.

So, what are the key components in the further development of our national rugby team?

What's there now that wasn't there in the spring when the Triple Crown was won? How long can we expect these recently introduced/discovered components to remain in place?

First and foremost, in deliberating upon the prospects of any participant in competitive sport, one must look first at the opposition.

In this regard, New Zealand are so far ahead of the rest, both in terms of performance and squad depth, that they are in a different league. The remainder, particularly Australia, South Africa and England, are in various stages of squad reconstruction and will have learned a lot from the November internationals.

The four most important features of the Irish team of November 2006 for me were: the availability of the entire squad (bar Jerry Flannery) for selection; the introduction, with varying degrees of effect, of several newcomers to international rugby; the performance levels of the established team members and, finally, the marked improvement, individually and collectively, of the side's continuity skills.

Let's look at the first of those four elements and pay tribute to the role of Dr Liam Hennessy and his IRFU staff.

In the dangerously high-impact world of professional rugby, the achievement of producing an almost totally injury-free squad is testament to the high standards of injury recovery and rehabilitation processes in place. This is particularly important in a country relying on a relatively small playing base.

Then there is the second factor, the performance of the newcomers. Undoubtedly, the star turn here was Neil Best, closely followed by his Ulster colleague Isaac Boss.

Best's physicality is as important to the team's performance as it is enjoyable to watch from the safety of the stands. For many years in our rugby history, once the traditional opening 15-minute flurry of Irish bejaysus had blown itself out, we lost the physical battles. No more of that.

Boss did not make quite the same impact but, and I know this is an issue which will run and run (shades of Campbell/Ward in the early 1980s), he does have a definite role to play in the future of this squad - a distinctively different one from his scrum-half rival Peter Stringer.

Paddy Wallace, Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald also demonstrated that they have what it takes to be, at the very least, worthwhile squad members and viable back-up should anything befall the established first-teamers. The trip to Argentina in May/June should see these talented youngsters getting further experience.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Stephen Ferris - his performance against the Pacific Islanders was anonymous and his immediate demotion from the Ulster side was interesting. He might well have suffered from being played out of position in an Irish jersey, as has happened to backrows more than once under the current regime.

The third striking feature was the developing performance of the established players.

While we expect nothing less than excellence from our world-class figureheads Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, the high quality of play from Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and Donncha O'Callaghan was hugely encouraging.

In the first half of the Australian game, the team's continuity skills provided the cornerstone for the finest 40 minutes

of rugby from any Irish side

D'Arcy's strength in contact and ability to offload in the tackle, combined with a contribution equal to that of any top class flanker at the ruck/maul, make him an outstanding international centre and his partnership with O'Driscoll is without equal.

In the past, Shane Horgan has suffered as a result of his versatility. He never seemed, despite his try-scoring exploits and his remarkable Lions tour, to nail down a specific and clearly identifiable role for himself.

However, after three hugely impressive displays, Horgan's workrate at the breakdown and his leadership mark him out as one of the world's most effective wingers and a vital component of O'Sullivan's team.

Indeed, to emphasise this, Horgan was one of only four players to start all three games (John Hayes, O'Connell and O'Driscoll being the others).

Donncha O'Callaghan put aside some early season distractions to knuckle down and deliver consistently at the coalface, producing the honest, grafting performances which are the bread and butter of any quality second row.

The Corkman's talent is undoubted and it is now being applied to maximum effect.

And, to round off our quartet of striking factors from last month, we have the improvement in continuity skills. The name Brian McLaughlin may not ring too many bells among the Irish rugby public but the fruits of his labours, since his introduction to O'Sullivan's backroom as skills coach, were there for all to see.

In the magnificent opening half of the Australian game, the team's continuity skills provided the cornerstone for what may well have been the finest 40 minutes of rugby from any Irish team. Take a bow, Brian.

All in all, November was a very encouraging month. It will take a good side to beat us in the Six Nations but, equally, given that it is over 50 years since Ireland managed to win a Grand Slam, it is incredibly difficult to win every game in such a testing campaign.

No matter how well the Six Nations goes, the reality is that, next autumn, we must finish ahead of both Argentina and France in our pool to avoid a World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks.

Challenging, to put it mildly.

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