With the autumn international series beginning this Saturday, Daniel Keenan discusses how these games could potentially affect Ireland’s World Cup preparations
Autumn internationals tend to loom over the head of club coaches. Intensive, hard-hitting internationals await their better players, while local managers are left to throw together teams from fragmented squads.
Some question the point in playing these futile Tests in the middle of tournaments like the Magners League and Aviva Premiership, which are also interrupted for the Six Nations.
This year, however, the November Internationals are more important than any domestic league, simply because in September of next year, Ireland will kick-off their World Cup campaign in New Zealand. Should they hope to have any chance of lifting the cup in Auckland next year, every morsel of international rugby has to be geared towards the biggest competition in world rugby.
Marc Lièvermont of France was heavily criticized for his squad rotation policy early in his tenure, but now with a Grand Slam under his belt, he leads the only Northern hemisphere side with a realistic chance of winning the World Cup.
His French team were all-conquering in the Six Nations last year, after they struggled in their previous two tournaments to find consistency, or even to field a regular team. Lièvermont was famously criticised for using 56 players in 2008, yet never naming a regular starting line-up.
Well, it seems there was a method to his madness after all. Morgan Parra, Thomas Domingo, François Trinh-Duc and Mathieu Bastareaud are just some of the players who have made their debut during his reign as French manager. Six Nations competitions and tours abroad were occasionally sacrificed for the greater good.
Declan Kidney must use Lièvermont’s idea as a blueprint for the approaching November internationals and subsequent Six Nations tournament. There has been a monkey on the back of Irish rugby since 1987 – our inability to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Ireland still have some of the best players in the world in Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris. The obvious problems, however, lie in the front row, where Ireland have been embarrassed in the past.
Cian Healy needs more time to adjust to the power of scrums at this level, which should be granted during these upcoming internationals. Meanwhile, the seemingly eternal question about John Hayes’ ability to compete at his age still remains and France have shown just how important it is to dominate the scrum. It is no secret that Hayes can no longer physically withstand 80 minutes of rugby. In addition, he has never been the most prolific scrumager, even in his heyday.
Kidney needs to choose the best alternative for Hayes quickly and try players out in these upcoming tests, because the rock that is John Hayes has started to erode. Tom Court and in-form Tony Buckley will vie for the spot.
Results are always moral boosters, but performance is what counts in these tests. Coming out with four fortuitous victories would do nothing but pave over the cracks which need fixing in the Irish team.
If Ireland were to play the World Cup now, against the four teams – Australia, Italy, Russia and USA – in their group next year, they would most likely score easy victories over group whipping boys Russia, and Eddie O’Sullivan’s USA. Italian physicality would always pose a threat, but Ireland would surely still secure a positive result. The real test is undoubtedly Australia.
Like France, the Wallabies have been focused on the World Cup since their elimination in 2007. Disappointing results in the Tri Nations have masked a steady improvement in Australian rugby, as head coach Robbie Deans has gradually assembled a squad that will challenge for the World Cup next year.
If Ireland were to meet the Wallabies in the World Cup tomorrow, they would probably lose. Therefore, South Africa would most likely be their opponents in the quarter-finals and would also presumably edge out the Irish.
Realistically, Ireland do not have much hope of winning the World Cup in New Zealand. However, should Kidney use the upcoming season as a building block for the World Cup, then the side could at least cause a few upsets.
Some sacrifices will have to be made, such as Jonny Sexton being chosen over Ronan O’Gara, and Devin Toner getting a chance at international level. If that means a poor autumn series, so be it. A successful World Cup is worth far more than any November victory.
So the question remains: can Ireland match the preparations of the bigger nations? If so, the Irish camp must look to a long-term plan, no matter how tempting it may be to put one over the Springboks or the All Blacks in the Aviva Stadium in the coming weeks.