Easterby: 2019 vision is taking shape
Forwards coach says Ireland have one eye on next World Cup in Japan as they look for new leaders to emerge in South Africa
In camp Ireland, you rarely hear anyone allowing their thoughts to stray beyond the next game, so it was unusual yesterday to hear forwards coach Simon Easterby speak frequently about the place of the summer tour of South Africa in the context of the World Cup cycle.
The disappointment of last October's quarter-final exit has loomed large over this season and, having blooded new faces during a faltering Six Nations campaign, the assistant coach clearly wants the side to take a stride forward over the course of the next three weeks against the Springboks.
Ireland are without a host of key players and leadership figures for the Test series, but rather than look for excuses the former Lions flanker is calling on his team to respond to the challenge.
As Craig Gilroy observed yesterday, there are eight members of the U-20 World Cup squad of 2011 on the tour and while there will be plenty of familiar faces in the starting XV for Saturday's first Test, there will also be opportunities for those who have been waiting for a chance.
"There's a real collective drive," Easterby said.
"Those guys who have stepped out, yes that's a blow but those guys have stepped in see that as an opportunity. I know you've got different players coming in and they've all got different qualities to the ones who have left.
"For me, it's about those guys coming in stepping up and we'll find out a lot about them. We'll find out over the next three weeks can those players come with us for the next couple of years building towards Japan in 2019.
"Maybe without a couple of those injuries to some of the more established players we wouldn't see that.
"We wouldn't get to know about certain players over the next three weeks. We're clearly going to find out about those players maybe we don't know as well as others and for me that's a real positive."
Easterby is not just looking for players to get some experience in South Africa, this is no development tour. He wants results.
"It's important we beat a southern hemisphere side away from home," he said.
"If we want to do better than get to the quarter-final of the next World Cup then we're going to have to do that, beat a southern hemisphere team outside of Dublin.
"So we need to start to build that now, not in three years' time when it comes to the World Cup. That's got to be something that we're striving towards now.
"Those home games are slightly different than when you tour as well. It's a different mentality but a fantastic challenge for everybody."
Paddy Jackson appears to have the most to gain in the next three weeks as he attempts to prove himself as a viable alternative to Johnny Sexton. For Finlay Bealham and Tadhg Furlong, there is a chance to put serious pressure on 36-year-old Mike Ross, while there are four second-rows who appear to be vying for a place alongside Devin Toner in the second-row.
While a dynamic pairing of Iain Henderson and Ultan Dillane looks appetising for many fans, the need for set-piece solidity means the 6ft, 10ins Meath man is a cert.
"We have to make sure that we secure our set-piece both at scrum and lineout, so you have got to have the right combinations," Easterby said. "We certainly didn't have a perfect lineout in the Six Nations, but I think we started to see a bit of development of Dev in his calling.
"Unfortunately Leinster missed him in the Pro12 final, he's got good composure and not a lot rattles him; he's pretty level-headed.
"But then below that we also need to develop other players in that calling.
"There are other really capable players like Hendy (Iain Henderson), Donners (Donnacha Ryan) has a wealth of experience in there as well and then you've got players who can probably do other jobs that some of the others probably couldn't do like Ultan (Dillane) in particular who had a fantastic end to the season.
"Quinn (Roux) didn't get a lot of rugby, but he has the ability to grow and seeing him in this environment is really good for us.
"So, I think combinations are important; getting the combination between scrum and lineout and what you need there is vital.
"You might not be able to pick two similar players sometimes, you've got to get a little bit of a balance between what one gives you and what another doesn't."
One solution could be to redeploy Henderson to the back-row where he played all of his rugby with Ulster at the end of this season since recovering from his hamstring injury.
The 24-year-old was a star at the World Cup last year and Easterby identified him as a man who can be a key leader in the next couple of years.
"He's a big man, he's explosive, he's powerful," he said.
"We talked about experience, he's got to step up now and other players have to step up and take the mantle on of players that we maybe don't have anymore.
"That's part of your evolution as a team, you can't look back because we'll never move forward if we do that.
"You've got to just keep driving those players like Hendy, like Ultan to really push the others and make sure that they start to put their stamp on their positions when they get the opportunity."