Sunday 17 December 2017

Three wins out of four is our realistic target

Lack of numbers will always make it hard for Ireland to compete, says Jim Glennon, but November should be a positive month

Jim Glennon

DECLAN KIDNEY enters this World Cup year in a very different place to his predecessor Eddie O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan may have felt under pressure to persist as far as possible with his strongest available 15 for every game and the downside of this approach was clear for all to see, and certainly didn't go unnoticed by Namibia and Georgia at the last World Cup.

Kidney, on the other hand, by virtue of delivering a Grand Slam in his opening season, has created sufficient clout for himself to implement his own strategy in terms of player selection in the run-in to next year's World Cup.

Whether Kidney's strategy will be based on rotation or on a concentration on the strongest available 15 remains to be seen. Indeed, it will provide one of the more interesting sub-plots of the next 12 months. I am firmly of the view that Kidney is free to chart his own course.

In this regard, it is worth looking at some of the options he has which have manifested themselves. Last week on these pages, George Hook -- in a damning assessment of the current status of our national squad -- made particular reference to David Wallace as the only Irish player capable of carrying effectively against modern defensive systems. I could not disagree more strongly with this view, having watched Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in action for Leinster.

The Tullow man has been one of the stand-out performers, of all provinces and in all positions, in the early part of the season and his ball-carrying has been the most striking feature of his contribution. Heaslip has oozed class over the past month, particularly in possession.

By the same token, George's dismissal of Tony Buckley as an offensive weapon simply because of a spectacular piece of defending by London Irish's Delon Armitage is equally unjustified. Indications of Buckley's long overdue emergence at international level were clear to see in New Zealand in June and his continued development since then, facilitated to some extent by the new refereeing interpretations, bodes well for the remainder of the season.

Indeed, the coach's release of John Hayes from last week's training camp could well be a portent of things to come, and a sign of real change in the composition of the Irish pack.

Leo Cullen, making his return from a lengthy lay-off, has matured into probably the most astute player in the country at the moment and one who was unlucky not to have played a bigger role for Ireland over the years.

In Paul O'Connell's continued absence, Cullen's levels of match fitness assume increased importance, and could well be a vital component in Kidney's effort to regenerate badly-needed momentum. Cullen is a natural-born leader, which makes him invaluable in the absence of O'Connell. But he is also a great thinker on the pitch, capable of understanding the ebb and flow of a game from its midst and, therefore, of understanding when to use the right call for the right situation.

Behind the scrum, George's optimum back-three combination is Keith Earls and Rob Kearney on the wings with Luke Fitzgerald at full-back.

For me, however, Rob Kearney is right up there with the best full-backs of the world game, as also is Tommy Bowe on the wing. Even some way short of their best, both of them remain a better bet on the basis of what we've seen to date.

In any event, if the coach is realistically thinking along other lines -- and I don't believe he is, other than for back-up purposes -- the upcoming November series, and particularly the Samoan game, will provide him plenty of opportunity to experiment.

Overall, however, it is fair to say that we currently possess a squad which is some way short of the finished article. The question must be asked, though, of whether we will ever possess a squad that is the finished article and superior, or even equal, to the might of the southern hemisphere. Unlikely, I'd suggest.

Regrettably, we will always have areas of weakness and shortcomings relative to our rivals, not least in our capacity to produce an entire squad of consistent quality, an ever more important aspect of the international game. The numbers will always be against us.

Having said that, we have just come out of the game's most successful decade ever in Ireland. We go into the November series off the back of a better-than-expected opening to the season's Magners League and Heineken Cup, and I see no reason why that positivity should be diluted over the course of the coming weeks, as we look forward to the Six Nations, and beyond.

Notwithstanding our limitations, I feel that three wins out of four is a very attainable goal for this group of players.

Jim Glennon and George Hook can be heard in conversation every Friday on Newstalk's 'The Right Hook'.

Sunday Independent

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