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Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Ben McCalman, Australia

Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Ben McCalman, Australia

Simon Zebo, Ireland, sprints past Nick Phipps, Australia, to score his side's first try

Simon Zebo, Ireland, sprints past Nick Phipps, Australia, to score his side's first try

Rob Kearney, Ireland, is tackled by Henry Speight, Australia

Rob Kearney, Ireland, is tackled by Henry Speight, Australia

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Robbie Henshaw, Ireland, is tackled by Ben McCalman, Australia

Eight years ago today the old Lansdowne Road closed its doors to rugby for the last time. On the day it felt underwhelming that the Pacific Islands should be providing the opposition on such a historic day, for given the generations of stars who had been through the place, it would have been apposite to have a heavyweight shutting the gate.

In fairness, the previous two weeks had given us just that, so it was only the running order that was at issue. In the first week of the series Ireland had beaten the Springboks, and seven days later it was the turn of the Wallabies to suffer at the hands of a side with two Triple Crowns in the cabinet over the previous three seasons. Those titles had some cachet back then.

Before the chains had been put on the gate and the hard hats handed out, a growing band of Irish rugby fans were getting excited about the prospect of a Grand Slam assault in the new year. Not only would the home games be against France and England, but they would be in Croke Park, which after much hand-wringing and introspection would be opened to rugby for the first time.

So upbeat was the mood that travel plans extended beyond the Championship schedule and all the way to the World Cup in France the following September, where the host nation would open the tournament with a match from our pool, against Argentina. The Celtic Tiger was in turbo mode at that point. Bring it on, eh?

There was huge confidence in the group of players available to then coach Eddie O'Sullivan. His own optimism didn't stretch far beyond the core group, however.

Like this sequence of games under Joe Schmidt, O'Sullivan reeled off a long list of starting names for the Guinness series - 26 for O'Sullivan against 29 for Schmidt. A few months earlier he had faced an exhausting schedule in the southern hemisphere, with two Tests in New Zealand and then one in Perth on the way home.

He relied on just 16 starters for those three games, all of which were lost. O'Sullivan's rationale was that while the frontliners were low on fuel, they still had more gas than the players parked behind them. So when it came to South Africa and Australia five months later, he called on the same 16 before opening the door to the reinforcements against the Pacific Nations.

In some positions the coach would break out in a rash about the prospect of injuries.

There were no alternatives, for example, to the Brian O'Driscoll/Gordon D'Arcy combination in midfield. At 10 the gap between Ronan O'Gara and Paddy Wallace - who made his debut in that last game in Lansdowne - was like falling off a cliff.

Whatever about Bryan Young getting a look-in to the front row when Marcus Horan was otherwise engaged, no one wanted to look under the rock that John Hayes had been sitting on since his debut in 2000. The Munster tighthead started every Test in 2006.

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There wasn't much variety in the second row either. The three-ball of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Malcolm O'Kelly were used in all 11 Tests that year. And in the back row O'Sullivan relied on just four faces - Simon Easterby, Denis Leamy, Neil Best and David Wallace - to start the 10 Tests up to the Pacific Islands game.

By comparison, the depth available to Schmidt, as we look forward to the first World Cup in Europe since O'Sullivan's tenure, is remarkable - unique in our rugby history.

Jonathan Sexton, for example may be the undisputed playmaker - with no Ward/Campbell or O'Gara/Humphreys battle to keep us amused - but the presence of Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley leaves us better served than countries with much greater resources.

Up front, Schmidt has started six second rows this year, and Donnacha Ryan still has to come back into the mix from long-term injury. Back row, loosehead, hooker - all stuffed with faces who between them have gathered a sackful of caps.

Wings? Falling out of the trees: depending on fitness Schmidt will have to sieve through Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald - though we hope the last on that list might still ring a bell at 13, where he lines out for Leinster in Treviso this afternoon.

It's his first start at outside centre in 12 months. If Craig Gilroy gets back on track then that's seven contenders for what probably will be three wing slots for France.

Midfield looks healthy enough, though you'd hope either Stuart McCloskey in Ulster, or Chris Farrell - the Ulsterman in Grenoble - will force their way into the reckoning to make Schmidt's job all the harder.

Which leaves tighthead. True, it's not as bad as the O'Sullivan era when the health of Hayes was uppermost on the coach's mind, but it's not that far off.

Marty Moore's shoulder injury has cost him valuable game-time in challenging Mike Ross, and Nathan White's bicep has robbed him of the chance to steal a march on Moore. Chances are that, by the end of the season, though, Tadhg Furlong will have pushed himself further into the frame.

Schmidt needs a break on this front, for it is the only blot on his landscape. Compared to 2006 he is streets ahead on all other options. A couple more will complete the picture.


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