There are two schools of thought when talking about Ireland’s rugby team at the moment. The Optimist will look at the Ireland squad, they will assess the credentials of exactly the same players as last year (and the year before that for that matter) and will come to the conclusion that Ireland are one of the best teams in the Northern Hemisphere, and that finally, 2009 is Ireland’s year for the Six Nations title.
Meanwhile, in the other corner you have The Realist (often referred to as The Sceptic) who, diametrically opposed to The Optimist, will view the current Ireland squad with a gentle shake of the head. The Realist has been around the block before, he’s seen the hype whipped up by The Optimist in previous years, he’s even been known to have been caught up in the “moment” that gripped Ireland fans prior to the World Cup. However, unlike his partner in crime, The Realist sees this old yarn for exactly what it is – a pile of twaddle.
Yes, Ireland have great players in their midst. Yes, Irish teams are performing well in the Heineken Cup. Yes, Ireland now have a great coach in the form of Declan Kidney. However, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4, and in Ireland’s case this couldn’t be more true.
Ireland’s “golden age” of rugby players are, let’s face it, beginning to lose thier sheen. Players like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell are no longer the best players in their position in the world. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. If I was picking a World XV, you’d have to pick someone like Conrad Smith, or Victor Matfield ahead of the two giants of Irish rugby. They are great players, but if Ireland are to reach the dizzy heights of their pre-World Cup form (i.e. beating Southern Hemisphere teams), we need these players to be at their mercurial best. The other members of the “golden age” – players like Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey – are hanging onto their positions in the squad by the skin of thier teeth. They’re all in the Ireland squad for the upcoming tournament, but most of them can’t even command their chosen position in their club sides.
Then there’s the pack. Ireland have a very good back five i.e. they have a weak front row. Their reliance on John Hayes and the winger-cum-prop, Marcus Horan for so long is getting to be something of an embarrassment for Irish fans out there. Horan has never been a world class scrummager, and has been exploited at international level more times than I’d care to remember, and I don’t want to get started on the amount of times he’s lost us the game with a moronic bit of play at a crucial stage of a game. Then there’s Hayes. John Hayes can lift a man in the lineout all by himself, and has hands the size of dinner plates. Brilliant. It’s just a shame that he adds next to nothing elsewhere on the pitch. However, the most depressing thing about the state of the front row club in Irish rugby is that the young players coming through i.e. Tony Buckley, Cian Healy, or Tom Court, just aren’t ready to step up yet. Plus, to make things worse, the form Irish prop at the moment is Harlequins’ Mike Ross, and he usually gets relegated to the Ireland A team. Props mature as players later than the sprigtly backs, so, unfortunately, it looks like we’re stuck with “Big” John Hayes and Marcus Horan for a few more years yet.
The main issue, and I touched on it with reference to the front row, is that Ireland’s player pool is too small. We’ve named 9 players in our A team. England have named about 40. Of those 9, one of them plays for Exeter Chiefs. None of the other 6 Nations sides need to call on the second tier of English rugby for players – why should Ireland? Players like Ian Humphreys, who has been playing like a man possessed for Ulster have been overlooked for the main squad, when he should really have been brought into the mix and introduced to the system. Why should the “golden age” players be so content in their position when we’ve got young players coming through who want to fight for the shirt? The kit man for Ireland may as well stitch names onto the jerseys for the next two seasons – I’d imagine he wouldn’t be far wrong with his selection!
But perhaps I’m glossing over the fact that Ireland have introduced some new blood recently. Rob Kearney will be pushing for a Lions spot; Luke Fitzgerald (a former Rugby Blog player to watch) is a livewire and a genuine world class player in the making; Jamie Heaslip is one of the form British and Irish number 8’s around but will no doubt get glossed over by the Lions selectors; and Tomas O’Leary has finally been given a chance in the 9 jersey despite being the in form Munster scrum-half for a couple of seasons now. Ireland’s problem is that they take a long time to introduce these players. They should all have at least 20 caps by now, but instead they’ve been forced to lie in waiting behind players of more experience.
Perhaps I’ve been drawn in too much by The Realist? Maybe I’m turning into The Cynic? All I want is to watch BOD jink through the Welsh line with unfettered access. I want to see Paul O’Connell stand up and be counted. I want to see the Irish backline, with the talent and pace that it has in abundance, hold their opponents to the sword for once. I want the players to actually answer Ireland’s call, and give us – the fans – what we want…a performance.
Is that too much to ask? Or am I an Optimist?
By John White
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