IRELAND play Wales on Saturday in the opening round of the Six Nations championship at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow and despite the fact that the Welsh have been the proverbial banana skin for Irish rugby over the past decade this is one that Andy Farrell’s side should win.
The team was named at lunchtime on Thursday, with Cork's Peter O'Mahony on the bench.
Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, Johnny Sexton (c), Jamison Gibson Park; Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, James Hume.
Last year Wales ended up as unlikely Six Nations champions after a bizarre sequence of opposition red cards and referee decisions fell their way. This year, with a major injury crisis already in full swing, they are not going to be so fortunate.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac reckons that he will be missing about 680 caps of irreplaceable experience due to the various injuries that will keep the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Alun Wyn-Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Josh Navidi out on Saturday. It looks like all the luck got used up last year. Quite simply, Wales cannot expect to survive with all them being absent.
Hence, why Saturday is going to be an opportunity missed by Andy Farrell.
OK, a question, hands up who is really bothered about winning a Six Nations title or a Grand Slam this year?
Who would prefer that Ireland try and build for France 2023 instead?
And the thing is, you could possibly do both.
10 caps. That’s the key number. 10 caps.
Ireland has buckets of talented young players in key positions right now who are extremely inexperienced at international level, and the likelihood is they will still be inexperienced come the World Cup kick off in September 2023.
To get the Irish side into as healthy a state as possible Farrell needs to get these players to the 10 cap mark before that World Cup.
Obviously, the first step is identifying these players, but that seems easy enough, as a number of them are sticking out like sore thumbs at present.
The Ulster trio of Michael Lowry, James Hume and Robert Baloucoune would all seriously increase Ireland’s backline options, while Gavin Coombes being integrated into the back row would seem a no-brainer. These guys are ready. Now!
After that, you are into punt territory, where you identify a key position that requires bolstering and you to fast-track certain individuals.
Thomas Ahern’s 6' 9" frame would make him an obvious one at lock, while one of Ben Healy or Jack Crowley look better bets than Harry Byrne at out-half.
At this stage, we’re into opinion territory, although it must be noted that Ireland really needs to be more proactive in their half-back succession planning.
The point is that these players can be brought in without damaging Ireland’s prospects and performance levels.
Baloucoune could then play right wing against England and then Lowry playing against Scotland at full-back. And, of course, they all play against poor Italy.
That would be four young players getting decent game time right now, with them getting the invaluable exposure of playing a big game with the first team while getting a second day out against Italy.
Andy Farrell would learn a lot with this approach, and none of these players would weaken his side significantly given the impressive form that they have all shown this season to date.
They wouldn’t even have to become first-teamers. The likes of Keenan and Ringrose could still be first-choice in their positions, but at least the alternates would be ready if needed. That’s the point.
Ireland has this Six Nations championship, a Summer Test Series in New Zealand, the Autumn Internationals, the 2023 Six Nations and then some RWC warm-up games to get these players up to the required experienced levels.
That process should start now.
We all know that will not happen, however. Instead, we will get as close to the side that beat New Zealand last November to play pretty much every game, apart from when injuries dictate otherwise.
We are probably on the cusp of another successful Six Nations championship, but the fear is that short-term success may come at the expense of some serious long-term pain.