Rugby World Cup 2011: Where Do Ireland Go from Here?
With Ireland crashing out of the Rugby World Cup in the quarters, and a number of the "golden generation" never to feature again at the highest level, the onus on Declan Kidney and Co. will be to rebuild and reconfigure a team that has left us with such bittersweet memories from this tournament.
While the victory against Australia was laudable, historic even, one cannot forget that Ireland have been on something of a downward trajectory over the past two years since their epic grand slam win in 2009, despite unearthing some fine talent and the good performance of its provinces.
So without further ado, here are three things I think Ireland could do to put us back on track and, hopefully, on to another grand slam or two before the next World Cup.
Blood Young Players and Ease Out the Veterans
Without being too damning, in the great battle between youth and experience that was Wales versus Ireland, youth won and then some.
With many of the older players ending their World Cup careers, why play them in place of youngsters in preparation for the next World Cup? There's a lot of low-hanging fruit here with the likes of David Wallace, Paddy Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan, Geordan Murphy, Gordon D'Arcy and Ronan O'Gara all about to exit stage left after fine careers.
Younger players like Donnacha Ryan, Jonathan Sexton, Andrew Trimble, Devin Toner, Sean O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin should now be considered for full-time starting roles. O'Brien seems to have nailed one down with his top-notch performances, thankfully. Hopefully Sexton and Co. will follow.
The bigger question will be how to replace Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell—not easy. Not likely even.
I would like to see Trimble tried at outside centre. His passing skills are terrific; he has remarkable acceleration from standing starts, great movement and he can finish.
As for O'Connell, I think this could be tough, as locks tend to be molded over time and with experience—so the sooner we get started blooding Ryan and Toner, the better.
Sort Out Halfback
I personally have no idea what Kidney has been doing at half-back this past year. In the past eight games we've had five different half-back partnerships. Kidney has been in charge for three years and doesn't know who his best pairing is.
No other coach experiments this much in this vital area where split-second understanding between teammates are crucial (leaving Looney Lievremont aside). His defence of "picking horses for courses" shouldn't get much traction.
On the two occasions we've gone with the European Cup-winning partnership (Eoin Reddan and Sexton) from the start, we've beaten England and Australia handsomely.
He also dropped Tomas O'Leary completely from the squad prior to the tournament, calling up uncapped rookie Conor Murray—for test starts.
Has Kidney got a problem with an all-Leinster back line than no amount of rubbish form from Munster players will dissolve? Probably.
The lack of trust in Reddan in particular remains questionable. With due respect to four-cap Murray's fine contributions relative to his age, it remains to be seen whether his slower ball distribution and lack of experience even at provincial level can be overcome. To date, his performances against USA and France hardly merited dropping Reddan, who has done well when coming on.
O'Gara on the other hand is more of a slam dunk. He is 34 years old, and as the Welsh, French and South Africans have shown time and again, limited in pure rugby ability (as opposed to footballing, say. It's crucial Sexton starts, no questions asked, to improve his confidence. But it's Kidney, and so we might see Munster's schoolgirls in there before we see a Leinster partnership again.
End 10-man Leaning Rugby
This is why dropping O'Gara will be crucial in the coming months. All four semifinalists play attacking wide rugby. This isn't a coincidence, and aside from South Africa's brief peak during the height of the ELV era (which favoured forward-driven teams and made fetcher flankers like Heinrich Brussow even more potent), New Zealand have shown an unprecedented dominance of world rugby (even by their lofty standards) by—you'll never guess it—playing rugby.
It's a bit predictable at this stage knowing O'Gara will never attack the gain line, carry or pass out wide, thus limiting the team's back options outside the set piece.
The shambles at half-back means the ball is going through to the backs more slowly and guys are getting hit into touch—if by some miracle the ball does eventually make it out wide. You can count on one hand the amount of go-forward ball the centres are getting per game as we box-kick and garryowen ourselves to oblivion.
While Ireland's pack is, I think, one of the best in the world, modern rugby cannot be won just by running into people in the tight (again and again and again), so despite the best efforts of O'Brien and Stephen Ferris, I think Ireland will need a new game plan that doesn't rely too much on these two totem poles.
Back play isn't an area where Ireland have traditionally excelled, however, but one idea could be to model game play on Joe Schmidt's Leinster (who theoretically have less talent to choose from, but still play better rugby) or Australia, who were in similar position from the last World Cup, looking to ease young blood under Robbie Deans.
Turning Ireland into a grand-slam winning team again will be difficult. But as the provinces have shown in recent years, success should be natural to Irish rugby. We have great fans, decent infrastructure and great players. Now all that's needed is some vision from Kidney.
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