Ireland facing their Everest
March 27, 2012
Ireland's implosion at Twickenham has thrown up all the insecurities in Irish rugby © Getty Images
The world champions are waiting.
Ireland's capitulation to England at Twickenham altered the perception of their 2012 Six Nations campaign and now the three-Test summer series against the All Blacks is hanging like a heavy cloud over Irish rugby. Going to New Zealand at the end of a long season is a daunting challenge at the best of times but the circumstances surrounding June's excursion have made the quest as formidable as Frodo's journey to Mount Doom.
The first Test is set up for the All Blacks' triumphant return to Auckland for the first time since they claimed the World Cup crown last year, with the Irish the designated sacrificial lambs. Then, it is onto Christchurch, an emotional return to international rugby following the earthquake that ravaged that city before the final Test in Hamilton when Irish heads will be drifting to the prospect of a well-earned holiday.
Not a pretty prospect for Ireland (who have never beaten the All Blacks in 107 years of competition), particularly in light of such a disappointing conclusion to the Six Nations campaign which, had it ended with victory over England, would have been more than decent.
Ireland looked a tired team at Twickenham, the draining effects of persistent injury problems and an enforced schedule of four Tests on successive weekends eventually taking their toll. The defeat has reignited the front-row crisis debate in Irish rugby as Mike Ross's early departure sparked a complete collapse in scrummaging ambition and provided England with a platform to launch their well-executed victory.
Now, previously unheralded tight-heads such as Connacht's Ronan Loughney and Leinster's Jamie Hagan are being touted as potential messiahs together with a focus on a root-and-branch review of the prop development process. The IRFU has since advertised for a nation scrum development coach who will be charged with bringing props through from underage - a move which has emphasised the fact that this is not a quick-fix problem.
As well as the scrum debate, much of the Six Nations revision has centred on Ireland coach Declan Kidney's selection policy, where he only started 19 players in five matches, the four additions to his established first-choice 15 coming about because of withdrawals. Kidney can justifiably point to a squad expansion since the 2009 Grand Slam with the likes of Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton and Keith Earls all coming through as regular internationals but there is criticism that he stuck with a few 'old reliables' during this championship when there were alternatives in better form.
Second-row Donncha O'Callaghan and centre Gordon D'Arcy (until Twickenham) had solid Six Nations campaigns but such was the form of Donnacha Ryan that it seemed illogical not to use him until Ireland were forced to by the injury to Paul O'Connell. In midfield, judging by the amount of second-half time he has afforded them together, Kidney has become increasingly convinced by the 10-12 axis of Ronan O'Gara and Sexton but was not prepared to go with it from the start. Sexton, naturally, wants to be considered as a specialist out-half but with his size, pace, distribution and kicking skills he makes an excellent centre while O'Gara's form this season has been sublime.
Kidney returning to Tomas O'Leary when scrum-half Murray was ruled out was another 'safe' decision that backfired against England. O'Leary is a quality player but has been struggling with injury and form this season while Paul Marshall has been flying for Ulster.
It is not hindsight thinking post-Twickenham to ask whether Kidney should have freshened things up during a particularly arduous championship, the issue was being raised consistently throughout. And frustration was compounded by the success of Wales. After scraping past Ireland in their opening game, Warren Gatland secured his second Grand Slam with a squad defined by its youthful vigour. He is a coach who has always been prepared to throw youngsters in if he believes they have the ability and they nearly always come through.
Stuart Lancaster's bold selections with England provided another uncomfortable point of comparison. England are far from the finished article but Lancaster trusted in a new wave of players who grew into their white jerseys as the tournament progressed and were oozing belief by the end as they sent a far more experienced Irish side packing.
The positives for Ireland were the fact that they led the way in terms of tries scored and line breaks, with their attacking play noticeably expanding from the World Cup, and that they secured their second best result in Paris for 40 years when holding the French to a draw. However, the negatives weigh heavier. Even allowing for the many disruptions that affected Ireland's Six Nations campaign, the failure to close out the Wales and France games, the scrum collapse in Twickenham and lack of response to a frustrating World Cup campaign means it was a downbeat championship for the Irish.
It also confirms the lack of consistency since Ireland's unbeaten run of Test matches in 2009 and frustration is accentuated by the provinces continuing to prosper in the Heineken Cup (a competition Wales have never won).
Kidney faces a significant psychological test taking a weary squad to New Zealand. This tour could go off the rails very quickly and while he will rely on a core of experience - centred around the fit-again Brian O'Driscoll - there is also a need for an injection of freshness. This could mean leaving established touring regulars such as D'Arcy, O'Leary, Paddy Wallace and Shane Jennings at home and giving youngsters Marshall, Ian Madigan, Dominic Ryan or Rhys Ruddock a shot.
The new blood may not even see any Test rugby but it would give the Ireland team a shot in the arm and, after a demoralising end to the Six Nations, that is badly needed.
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