CONSIDERING that Ireland are on a winning run of eight games, and the fact that England and New Zealand were two of those eight scalps, to be seen to be criticising Ireland at this moment in time would seem to be an exercise in presenting yourself as the type of individual that yells at clouds, but here goes anyway.
Andy Farrell’s side are clearly in good nick right now.
The manner in which they dismantled Japan, Argentina, and more importantly, the All Blacks in the recent Autumn Internationals is testament to this. One can argue the toss over some of the selections, perhaps, but if Ireland keeps winning then the selection, or indeed non-selection, of a few individuals here and there seems irrelevant.
Ireland look set for a good shot at the 2022 Six Nations championship, although it also must be noted that France, England, Wales and Scotland all had big wins in the past month also, so let’s not overcrowd the bandwagon just yet.
In the absence of negatives perhaps the biggest caveat that we can point to is the calendar on the wall. December 2021.
We were all delighted when Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal sealed that long-awaited Grand Slam in 2009. It is natural to assume that such days are the beginning of something special.
It never seems obvious at the time that a sporting team has reached the pinnacle until hindsight rears its ugly head. That Slam came two years before the World Cup in New Zealand. By the time the tournament came around Ireland’s performance levels had dipped, with a quarter-final exit being the result.
2018 was arguably Ireland’s greatest ever. Another Grand Slam and a first home win over the All Blacks. The World Cup was only 12 months away. We all thought “Japan here we come”, but those thoughts deflated with the slow puncture that was Ireland’s 2019 campaign.
A poor Six Nations leading into another no-show at World Cup time. Humbling defeats to hosts Japan and New Zealand sent Joe Schmidt’s charges packing.
And here we are, just two years later, delighted with life. It all feels too familiar.
And it is not like we can accuse Andy Farrell of over-conservatism either. Plenty new players are being brought in and around the squad. But, if there is one accusation that sticks, it is probably that more could be done right now to improve Ireland’s depth chart in certain key positions.
Ireland are always going to be well-stocked in the back three and in terms of back row resources.
That can be pretty much taken as a given. Andy Farrell can be laissez-faire about building in these areas and effectively rely on picking on form at any given time in these positions.
However, in other positions, this is not the case. At the moment Ireland’s depth chart looks incredibly weak at out-half, lock and in all front row positions. A few injuries and Ireland could be in real trouble come the World Cup. It will be too late to do anything about it in two years though. Now is the time to act.
It is safe to say that Farrell has effectively put a line through the international careers of Jack Carty, Billy Burns and Ross Byrne as serious options, yet all three will continue to get plenty time in the 10 jerseys of their respective provinces.
Meanwhile, the baskets that carry Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne’s credentials seem fairly brittle given their respective injury issues. Not enough is being done at present to find a genuine alternative to the aging Jonathan Sexton at out-half.
France are already relying on 23-year-old Mattieu Jalibert and 22-year-old Romain Ntamack, while England are busy blooding 22-year-old Marcus Smith in the 10 shirt. Meanwhile, Ben Healy is already 22 and his Munster teammate Jack Crowley will reach that mark in January, yet both are scrambling for game time at club level.
It is perhaps unfair to compare the duo to the above-mentioned players given their level of experience, but that largely is the point. We still have no idea of their ceilings as players.
They both might turn out to be short of the required standard, but Farrell should be finding this out now.
The same can be said of the likes of Thomas Ahern, Josh Wycherley and Keynan Knox. To pick them for Ireland now would seem a tad premature, and would likely lead to negative results now.
But the flip side is that if these players are exposed to international rugby now, they will adapt to it quicker and be ready should they be required in 2023.
James Ryan was exposed to international rugby extremely early and by around cap 15 Ireland had a serious player on their hands.
It is this kind of forward-thinking that might see Ireland dip between World Cups, but perhaps see them peak when you want them to, at World Cup time.