With an ageing squad, Daniel Keenan looks to the future of Irish rugby, and the 2015 World Cup
Ireland took their natural place in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday 8th October in Wellington, with an expectant crowd at home bearing a 6am start in order to watch. Two hours later, the sun had risen over Ireland, but was setting on the World Cup careers of some of the country’s best players.
Come the next World Cup in England in 2015, Ireland will have lost two of their most iconic pairings, Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan in the second row, and Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll in the centre.
It is hard to fathom Irish rugby without O’Driscoll and to exit the World Cup with hopes of a final so high is a devastating way for him to finish his fourth World Cup. Ireland’s loss to Wales was far from a catastrophe – they were simply outplayed by a vibrant and clinical Welsh team – but the result is hugely damaging to Irish rugby.
Declan Kidney will remain in the job until the end of the 2012/13 season, which coincides with the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, giving a clear indication that Kidney could be the next Lions coach. Should Kidney get the job, and not carry on as Ireland manager afterwards, it would mean a switch in management halfway through a World Cup cycle; this wouldn’t just mean a change in manager, as Gert Smal (forwards’ coach), Les Kiss (defence coach) and Mark Tainton (kicking coach) could follow Kidney. Such a complete uproot of staff would only unsettle a squad building for a World Cup, and new coaches bring new styles, which take time to adapt to and put into practice.
David Wallace, an dedicated servant of his country and a favourite of Kidney’s, has not ruled out playing for his country again, and Ronan O’Gara seems to have side-stepped his retirement, despite saying he was “done with Ireland in a few weeks.” Their commitment to their country is admirable, but there is a problem with both of them making themselves available to play.
Kidney is a very conservative manager. It’s worth noting that Sean O’Brien was making powerful runs for Leinster two years before he was capped competitively; Wales’ George North was capped by Gatland after playing just 6 games for Scarlets. Kidney’s cautious policy could see him pick O’Gara and Wallace ahead of younger players desperate for game time in an Irish jersey. Should Kidney only be planning another two years in Irish management, he may stick with what he knows, rather than take a risk on the unproven players.
Kidney also has a big opportunity to improve Ireland’s back play after the departure of backs’ coach Alan Gaffney. A more expansive game is needed to progress and this will be dependent on Kidney’s choice. Jonathan Sexton, at twenty-six, could reasonably be Ireland’s out-half for the next six years, so the need to find a player to fill his boots is not as urgent as in other positions. Gareth Steenson had a promising spell with Exeter Chiefs last season, but with any Irish manager reluctant to pick Aviva Premiership players, it seems it will be a battle between Ian Keatley, Ian Humphreys and Ian Madigan for the back-up. Even at that, Humphreys will turn thirty during next year’s Six Nations and hasn’t been impressive for Ulster in the last few months, while Madigan will see much less game time at Leinster with the return of Sexton.
Keatley is the most likely candidate, and at twenty-four, still has time to develop into an international standard player if given the chance. He has continued his good form from his Connacht days at Munster, but it’s unlikely that he’ll ever reach the standard of Sexton, and the return of O’Gara could see him switch to centre.
The second rows, meanwhile, are past their prime. With Donncha O’Callaghan (aged thirty-two) and Paul O’Connell (thirty-two on Thursday) both pushing on, the need for a lock is of huge importance for Ireland. Short-term solutions are obviously to play O’Connell, O’Callaghan or Cullen, or move Kevin McLaughlin to the second row, but Ireland will be in massive trouble if they continue to play their ageing stars and neglect their youth. O’Connell should be retained, for his leadership skills if not his undying commitment to any game, and he would serve as the perfect model for any upcoming lock. The human penalty machine that is Donnacha O’Callaghan has to be replaced quickly however. Munster’s Ian Nagle is the only young contender at the moment, and even he doesn’t seem ready to step up to the international stage. Ulster’s Dan Tuohy will get the nod ahead of him.
Devin Toner, at 6”10, is a huge line-out option, but is ineffectual at carrying ball and is too often caught out in defence. However, with the amount of ball carriers in the Irish pack in the form of Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and the soon-to-be eligible Richardt Strauss, Toner could be a viable option should he improve his defensive work.
Like Strauss, Leinster lock Steven Sykes may qualify to play for Ireland in the future, should he see out his three-year contract with the European champions. Since he’ll be turning thirty-one just before the next World Cup, his progression will have to be monitored closely, as he could be a massive asset to the Irish team, since there are few other young locks making a breakthrough.
Considering it is probably Ireland’s best unit, it’s ironic that the back row is the main area of concern. Stephen Ferris once more produced staggering performances in green, but one has to wonder how much more his body can take. He is one of the most amazing athletes Ireland has ever produced, with a combination of pace and brutal strength as well as a huge work rate and technical skill, but his career has been blighted by long injury lay-offs. His body seems incapable of taking the stress he puts it under and his long term international future is a doubt.
Sean O’Brien became an international sensation during the World Cup with his bruising runs, while Heaslip had a fairly solid showing. Ireland’s downfall was their lack of a genuine openside flanker. Considering the World Cup’s four semi-finalists all possessed top quality openside flankers, in Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Julian Bonnaire and Sam Warburton, the roll of the No 7 cannot be played down.
With the hindsight of the Welsh game, where Warburton was key to stopping or slowing so many Irish attacks, it seems that the result against Australia was more down to Pocock’s absence than Irish ingenuity.
Ireland don’t have, nor have ever truly had, a groundhog player: an openside flanker who will work tirelessly to rip and turn over ball, to make dozens of tackles and clear rucks.
Leinster’s Dominic Ryan is the only potential openside flanker, with Shane Jennings now at thirty and failing to ever make a big impact for his country. Though he may not possess the attributes of the likes of Warburton, Ryan simply has to start playing for Ireland in the near future. Joe Schmidt used him sporadically last season, mostly in the Celtic League and off the bench in the Heineken Cup. Such is the nature of club rugby, Schmidt could afford not to play an out-and-out openside in Ryan, preferring to play better ball carriers. With the feverous competition in the back row at Leinster, with Heaslip, O’Brien, Ruddock, Jennings and McLaughlin, Ryan may have to play for Ireland even if he is on the bench behind fellow Irishmen at Leinster.
The task of replacing O’Driscoll and D’Arcy is made easier only because of choice. Earls has been groomed by Kidney as the heir to the No 13 jersey, but Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald both have the ability to play there. Nevin Spence is an exciting centre prospect at Ulster, with both he and Darren Cave capable of playing inside and outside centre.
D’Arcy needs to be dropped: his form has slipped in the last year and he won’t make the next World Cup. O’Driscoll should be slowly faded out on the other hand, since he has so much still to offer both on and off the field, but this should allow for more of a mentor role, in order to allow players to develop. Should he be kept on as the fulcrum of Ireland’s play, Irish rugby will suffer in the long-term.
The World Cup pairing is difficult to predict with so much choice, and much will come down to form and chemistry. Earls has looked more at home on the wing, so a more natural centre may be utilised, with Luke FitzGerald likely to be given one berth. Cave and Spence could well fill the other, but should Earls be the man chosen to go forward, then a complete reshuffle of the back three will be needed.
Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe could easily both feature in the World Cup in 2015, but there will be a need to consider as-of-yet untested wingers like Craig Gilroy and Andrew Conway, who have impressed in appearances for Ulster and Leinster respectively. Rob Kearney’s ability to play on the wing is another possibility which should be explored, with Felix Jones an option at full back.
Ireland’s rugby future is uncertain, dependant on whether untested players can step up to the mark and whether they will be given the chance to do so. Australia threw caution to the wind after their 2007 World Cup failure, and rebuilt their squad; Ireland need to do the same.