The recent news of Rob Kearney’s injury and the devastating defeat in the Stade de France has taken the sheen off of what has been a fantastic 12 months for Irish Rugby. With naysayers predicting the fall of the ‘Golden Generation’, and forecasting a knock-on effect for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, what can we really conclude about the future of Irish rugby from the first two games of the Six Nations?
Kearney: Misses this weekend’s game with England
The last 12 months have been a halcyon period for Irish rugby, with a first Grand Slam in 61 years, and with key Irish players making that vaunted step up into the ‘World Class’ bracket – Messrs. Heaslip, Kearney and Bowe joining the already lauded BOD – but is it simply a case of papering over the cracks? Without spiralling into a short-term mindset, there are still areas of the game that Ireland need to catch up on if they are to truly make that leap to serious contenders in 2011:
It is unlikely that this will be solved before the World Cup, with limited time afforded to blood a front row forward, one would assume that the front row is still likely to include ‘Big’ John Hayes. A centurion and stalwart of the Irish pack for the past 10 years, Hayes really has benefited from a lack of real competition both at provincial and international level. As Stephen Jones said, if only they had a player cam facility during this Six Nations trained on him – his lack of bite in the loose (and indeed the scrum) would be dangerously apparent.
However, having said that, his replacement, and the standout candidate for the number 17 shirt, Tom Court, isn’t much better. The breakthrough of Cian Healy has gone someway to address this dangerous lack of depth, but his short international career has already been blighted with question marks on his scrummaging, and, most recently, his discipline.
The Back Three
The recent injury to star Lions fullback Rob Kearney has served to highlight a dangerous chasm between the 1st and 2nd choice options in the back three. It’s looking increasingly likely that the number 15 shirt will be filled by Geordan Murphy for the game against England at Twickenham – a seasoned performer, but no longer a force on the international stage, and only just returning from injury.
None of the other back three options – i.e. Trimble, Earls or Horgan – can slot into that pivotal 15 position effectively enough at international level. Similarly, if Bowe was to be ruled out of contention, which of the previously highlighted options can come close to matching his physicality, pace, and the ability to pick the right line at the right time? Ireland need a viable option pushing Kearney at 15 (his battle with Lee Byrne over the summer propelled his game forward immeasurably) and need the likes of Trimble and Earls to be crossing the whitewash more regularly.
This isn’t necessarily an exclusively Irish problem, but more of a Northern Hemisphere deficiency – can we compete with the best over the course of a World Cup? Yes, Ireland beat South Africa in the Autumn Internationals, but the Boks weren’t exactly at the top of their game, and were basically going through the motions at the end of a long year. The only Northern Hemisphere team that look competitive at this critical facet of the game are the French, who showed the Irish how to play on the ground.
These are three areas of the game that Ireland desperately need to look at, however, looking at the half-full side of the coin, Ireland have improved significantly in the last year, and in Declan Kidney they have a coach that will do whatever it takes to make the team competitive – as shown by the emergence of Jonathan Sexton.
Ireland are not going to become any less competitive in the next year, and are justifiably ranked in the top 5 of world rugby – they do however need to kick on to an even higher level if there are to achieve their goal of breaking into that elusive Webb Ellis club.
By John White