Heading into the unknown: Ireland prepare for the Autumn Internationals

Ronan O'Gara

It’s a new era for Irish rugby. Having shrugged off the crushing disappointment of last year’s World cup and an unconvincing Six Nations campaign, Ireland head into the autumn internationals with a fresh mentality and a squad bursting with young talent.

The supposed golden generation of players struggled to make their mark on the biggest stage, and Declan Kidney now has to move fast to revive Irish fortunes. Two years ago they were ranked no. 2 in the world; now Ireland find themselves languishing in eighth and there is little time to improve that position by the end of the year when seedings for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand are finalised. If the tests against the All Blacks and Argentina weren’t big enough before, Ireland’s desperation to climb the rankings adds some extra impetus to proceedings.

Kidney takes charge of his side for the first time when Ireland face Canada in a curtain-raiser at the Thormont stadium since his Heineken Cup commitments with Munster meant he couldn’t be involved in the Southern Hemisphere tour this summer. Kidney succeeds Eddie O’Sullivan after pipping World cup-winning coach Jake White and former Leicester coach Pat Howard to the role. Formerly O’Sullivan’s coaching assistant, it was no secret that the pair were never close despite working together for two years.

Now the Cork-born maestro can set his sights on establishing his team on home soil and Kidney’s squad will be relishing the opportunity to face the All Blacks again after recently succumbing to a 21-11 defeat in the driving rain of Wellington. Ireland haven’t beaten New Zealand in 103 years, and there’s no better time to end the jinx.

Munster and Ireland kicking Coach Mark Tainton believes Ireland have all the right ingredients for success. “It’s crucial we put out a good side for all three games – ultimately it will be a strong and experienced team every time. The boys are training well and Declan has allowed the players and staff to express themselves more freely than previously under Eddie O’Sullivan.”

It doesn’t get any easier either. In the subsequent test match Ireland face an increasingly impressive Argentina, predominantly consisting of the same players that unceremoniously dumped the Irish out of the World Cup with a 30-15 defeat. Times have changed since then: Best, Easterby and Hickie have retired and Ireland now find themselves calling upon young players in key positions. Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald will play major roles in the autumn tests, complementing a backline featuring the tried and trusted Trimbles and O’Driscolls of the squad.

Despite their relative inexperience, Kearney’s tenacity in the contact area and Fitzgerald’s darting running lines have given Ireland a new dynamic element to their game. In the forwards, Jamie Heaslip will be looking to continue his fine summer form at the back of the scrum. Tainton said, “Obviously we will be looking at variations in the games, it’s virtually impossible to field the same players every week. We have some really exciting talent coming through and these games are a perfect opportunity for them to shine.”

Meanwhile, the scrum half debate rumbles on. Reddan is energetic and alert, but prone to inconsistency. What Stringer lacks in guile and raw pace, he makes up for with his intelligent reading of situations and near-telepathic understanding with the Irish talisman Ronan O’Gara having played in 72 tests with his Munster team-mate.

O’Gara is vital to any hopes of success and after a torrid International season by his standards, Ireland’s all time leading points scorer is back to his industrious best. Tainton works closely with O’Gara at club and international level. He said, “Ronan is massively important to the team. He’s head and shoulders above any other fly half and one of a handful of Irish number 10’s playing at the top end of the game. If he can maintain his fitness and form then he is capable of changing games.”

This autumn will represent a real test for Ireland’s new-look side. With the World cup seedings looming, the results are of utmost importance to a squad rebuilding after a difficult year. Kidney can be sure of the nation’s vociferous support and if the likes of Ronan O’ Gara and Brian O’Driscoll can perform at their best, Croke Park will certainly be rocking.

By Tom Tainton