Irish rugby will never kick on without investing in youth for Six Nations

Age profile of the Irish squad and issues at out-half mean genuine progress is out of reach
Irish rugby will never kick on without investing in youth for Six Nations

Connacht's Jack Carty kicks a conversion recently. The in-form ouf-half deserves a run with Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Hiscott

IRELAND face tournament favourites France at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday with a potential crisis at out-half coming down the tracks, with the most frustrating aspect of this being that it is a problem of their own making.

The Irish insistence on picking Jonathan Sexton for pretty much every game that he is available is going to come home to roost, and very soon. Even when Joey Carbery was available as an alternative he wouldn’t get picked in games against the likes of Italy. Ireland just would not take the ‘risk’.

Can there be any real surprise then that when the gun was put to the head of inexperienced replacement Billy Burns last Sunday that he was found wanting?

This was new territory for Burns, as he had not been exposed at a match of this level before. His only start was against Georgia, which makes you think, what exactly was the purpose of the Autumn Nations Cup?

The sad thing is that in all likelihood Burns’ international career will never recover from last Sunday’s Six Nations defeat to Wales. He was very much the scapegoat for the loss, as his failure to find touch from a penalty from hand in the final play of the game essentially guaranteed defeat for 14-man Ireland.

Wales' Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi tackles CJ Stander of Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Wales' Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi tackles CJ Stander of Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

And while a player should certainly not be written off on the basis of one mistake, the grim reality for the Ulster out-half is that every single error he will make for Ireland from here on in will be viewed by many as ‘proof’ of he’s unsuitability for the Ireland No. 10 berth. This confirmation bias will follow him forever.

Burns’ travails, combined with the legitimate concerns over the health of Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton due to his continuing issues with concussions, means that Ireland have a real crisis at 10 in the offing.

Ross Byrne has 11 caps to his name, but in none of these appearances has he ever really hinted that he is of the required standard. An accomplished goal kicker, he performs well in the armchair that is the No. 10 Leinster shirt, but an out-half cannot sit as deep as he does at international level and expect to prosper.

The likes of Harry Byrne and Ben Healy are much too raw to turn to yet, while Joey Carbery has to do a lot to show everyone that he is back as an option at both Munster and Ireland.

IN-FORM 

Connacht’s Jack Carty is probably the form fly-half in the country, as demonstrated by his dazzling 25 points haul in the victory over Leinster at the RDS in early January, but he has not been trusted since the World Cup in Japan and has yet to add to his 10 caps since.

With Sexton struggling to last entire games in the last year you could well argue that Ireland’s best option would be to start an in-form Carty for the first 50-60 minutes and then to bring on Sexton to finish games out, and to use his experience and killer instinct then.

Carty is currently not in the squad, however, and if passed fit, having gone through all the return to play protocols, Sexton will be rolled out once more.

The contrast between the 35-year-old Sexton and 31-year-old Conor Murray at half-back up against the 22-year-old Matthieu Jalibert and 24-year-old Antoine Dupont is a huge one. 

Jalibert has stepped in for the even younger Romain Ntamack and didn’t miss a beat last weekend against Italy, although playing outside the brilliant Dupont, arguably the finest player in the world right now, must be a dream for out-halves.

France’s Teddy Thomas scores despite Gregory Alldritt of France. Picture: INPHO/Dave Winter
France’s Teddy Thomas scores despite Gregory Alldritt of France. Picture: INPHO/Dave Winter

The loss of Peter O’Mahony, on the back of his red card against Wales, is a huge one, especially considering there is a good chance we might not see Caelan Doris in this campaign. 

Ireland still have plenty of options in the back row, although the sending back to Munster of the in-form Gavin Coombes has to be regarded as a retrograde step, and a clear sign of how slow Ireland are to introduce young players in comparison to the other nations in the tournament. 

The fact that 12 of Ireland’s 36-man squad for this tournament are over 30 would indicate that the age profile of the squad is wrong, especially when you consider that we are two and a half years out from the next Rugby World Cup.

Andy Farrell is not thinking about World Cups right now though. He is a coach very much in need of a win this weekend to get the pressure off his back. 

If Ireland play as well as they did on Sunday with 15 men as they did in Cardiff with 14 then they be very hard to beat, although it will take a monumental performance to derail a purring French side right now.

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