TIME for change or keep on rolling out the tried and trusted?
This is the question that the IRFU must now ask themselves and if they are anyway serious about winning a World Cup, the national team must be prepared to take the short-term pain in order to realise long-term success.
The look of disgust and bewilderment on the face of the Irish captain Johnny Sexton as he was hauled ashore with 10 minutes remaining probably summed up best, Ireland’s performance against France on Saturday last.
At 35 years of age, Sexton probably knows that his era in the number 10 jersey is coming to an end. However, like all great sports people, he will fight tooth and nail to retain ownership of his much-coveted position.
Is Sexton the best out-half in the country? One hundred percent yes.
Will he be the best in three years when the 2023 World Cup comes calling? Most certainly not.
If you put yourself in Andy Farrell’s shoes, your short-term goal will always be to win every game and you will always select what you feel are the best players to win each game.
As a player, Farrell was one of the best and achieved significant recognition in rugby union and rugby league.
A dual-code international he captained Great Britain, and his club, Wigan Warriors. Farrell made 34 appearances for Great Britain and represented England in two rugby league World Cups. He won six Championships and four Challenge Cups with Wigan, as well as numerous individual awards between 1991 and 2004.
In rugby union, he played for Saracens from 2005 to 2009 and won eight caps for England, including playing in the 2007 World Cup. After retiring as a player, Farrell continued in rugby union as a coach, working as an assistant coach with Saracens and Munster, as well as England, Ireland, and the Lions.
All of the above doesn’t just happen because you train hard, there has to be a callous and ruthless thirst for success running through your veins in order to reach such achievements. And this is why I suggest that it is the IRFU must make the decision about seriously competing for World Cup glory, not Farrell.
Telling Farrell that it’s ok to fail in order to prepare for a tournament that’s happening in three years is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
In order to win or even come close to winning a World Cup, you must start preparing many years in advance and while I’ve banged this drum on many occasions, Irish rugby has always made a complete mess of their timing when it comes to prepping for a World Cup.
If you look at the French squad that head coach Fabien Galthié selected for this year’s Six Nations and compare it with that of Ireland’s, what you will see is that their average age is 23 and Ireland’s is 27. Their average cap ratio per player is 8.3; Ireland’s is 28.1 and these figures scream of a nation that is not worried about the here and now.
With the 2023 World Cup taking place in France, even the most uneducated rugby mind will tell you, that in three years’ time the French should be perfectly primed for having a serious crack of holding aloft the William Webb Ellis trophy on home soil.
To become successful in any aspect of life you must be ruthless and while not everyone will agree with this statement, history tells us that difficult decisions are always made at the beginning of every successful journey.
So, what does the IRFU need to do now? Not tomorrow, not next week or next month but NOW!
First of all, anyone who is over the age of 28 needs to be cut from the squad and that includes legends such as Sexton 35, Cian Healy 33, Peter O’Mahony 31, Conor Murray 31, CJ Stander 30, Bundee Aki 30, Keith Earls 33, and Devin Toner 34.
It pains me something desperately to include names such as O’Mahony, Earls, and Toner on this list, however, their age tells us that they are not going to be about in 2023 and that the new blood needs exposure to the intensity that comes with the pace that international rugby demands.
You can’t expect players, with only a few caps under their belts, to go out and perform on the biggest stage the game has to offer and produce world standards. The best of whiskey is allowed to age and mature before it comes to market and this is how the best sides in the world think when it comes to grooming themselves for a World Cup tournament.
When you look at the talent that our four provinces are producing on a year on year basis, it would not be hard for Farrell to select a different starting 15 for each of the four Autumn Nations Cup game. While we may not win it, the exposure to the international game that the younger members of the squad would receive would be priceless.
No one will remember who wins this tournament and there’s no prize money. The World Cup seedings are already decided and world rankings are irrelevant, so why would Farrell not use these games to blood the next generation of Sextons and Toners?
If Farrell is shrewd we should see a whole pile of new caps over the coming weeks. One of the hardest decisions made in life is to choose which bridge to burn and which to cross, and right now Irish rugby has a choice to make.
Prepare for the 2023 World Cup properly, or point fingers and moan when we are knocked out of the tournament at the quarter-final stages once again.