Glass is half-full for Ireland
December 23, 2008
David Wallace has again been the most consistent performer for both Ireland and Munster this season © Getty Images
A reflective glance at the state of Irish rugby and you would have to say that the powers-that-be should be pleased with what they have seen so far this season - three provinces in the mix to qualify from their European pools, Munster leading the way in the Magners League and the national team cementing eighth place in the IRB World Rankings and gaining a favourable draw for Rugby World Cup 2011.
Starting with the latter, Ireland dogged out a crucial 17-3 win over Argentina at Croke Park just over a month ago and with the dust settled on coach Declan Kidney's first three matches in charge, there are plus points and negatives to consider.
Keith Earls made a try-scoring Test debut, Stephen Ferris looks set to be the long-term successor to Simon Easterby on the blindside and David Wallace, who made it to 50 Ireland caps during the series, continues to set the benchmark as regards consistency in a green jersey.
The centre partnership of Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald has come in for some criticism, given the lack of attacking potency Ireland showed against New Zealand and Argentina, but it is early days yet for the pair and their work ethic alone is so vital to the cause.
Earls, Girvan Dempsey and Geordan Murphy all got a start at full-back during the November Tests and it will be interesting to see who Kidney hands the No.15 jersey to for the Six Nations opener against France on February 7. My money is on Dempsey, although I would like to see the high-kick fielding Rob Kearney return to the position.
One man virtually assured of his starting place, fitness permitting, is new father Ronan O'Gara. Ireland's record-breaking outside-half may not be setting the world alight with his form at the moment and has seemed sidetracked at times (witness his ongoing niggles with Pumas prop Rodrigo Roncero), but there is no denying he is a match winner.
Called upon to kick his team home, O'Gara chipped in with 12 points against Argentina and it is no coincidence that of Munster's four Heineken Cup matches to date this season, the last scoring act of each one has been a successful O'Gara kick.
The Cork man's late penalty spared Munster's blushes at home to Montauban, his magical drop goal denied Sale a losing bonus point, his 74th-minute penalty at Clermont Auvergne garnered his side a losing bonus point and a fortnight ago at home to Clermont, he inspired a late Niall Ronan try and tagged on a superb conversion to become the first player to score 1,000 Heineken Cup points.
His presence for both province and country cannot be underestimated and therein lies one of the major problems for Kidney. O'Gara and experienced players like O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell are irreplaceable at the moment and if injury claims one or more of them, Ireland's chances of a successful Six Nations will seriously diminish.
This over-reliance on players is nothing new. Former coach Eddie O'Sullivan was frequently berated for not trying out or gambling with young and inexperienced players in the Six Nations and even friendly internationals. And if he did, it was usually for two minutes at the end of the match.
What was the use in that? At least Kidney recognises that Ireland need to 'build a panel' and this is something which he talked about frequently at his press conferences last month.
With no Magners League or Heineken Cup action last week, the extended Ireland squad got together for a short training camp in Dublin and O'Gara, speaking at the RTE Sports Awards on Sunday, gave an insight into how things are shaping up for the Six Nations.
"The camp was really positive and encouraging. There's a bond really developing now in the Irish team that might have been missing for the last twelve months," he said. "We're looking forward to the Six Nations big time. I think we've a point to prove and this could be a good start.
"The Six Nations is a massive goal for us. There's a lot of fellas hurting in an Irish jersey and last week we decided we need to improve things and I think we will improve things.
"It's a time to be enjoyed and maybe it became a bit stale. Right now fellas are refocused and reenergised and we're looking forward to the championship."
Second row Donncha O'Callaghan knows Ireland have to take whatever momentum was built up during the November Tests into the new year.
"This team has to perform from every game on and Deccie [Kidney] is the right man to lead us. We're going in the right direction, we're building momentum," he said. "We can't go out after the performance against Argentina and not back it up. Hopefully we'll back it up in the Six Nations."
Whatever is said about the state of the Irish set-up at the tail end of 2008 and the hunt for an elusive championship title, the World Cup pool draw for the 2011 tournament has dangled a serious carrot in front of Kidney's men.
With Italy and Australia their main pool rivals for quarter-final qualification, Ireland should at least make it through to the last-eight for the first time since 2003.
Ireland captain O'Driscoll is wisely not allowing himself to look beyond this season and next month's Heineken Cup showdown between Leinster and Wasps at Twickenham is certainly a game the talismanic centre has his mind on.
Leinster fluffed their lines last time out in Castres and have failed so far to ignite their Magners League title defence. They still top their European pool but a worrying inconsistency has crept into their game and Michael Cheika, with the likes of Felipe Contepomi, captain Leo Cullen and long-term absentee Gordon D'Arcy angling for returns, knows they need a strong festive period.
The same can be said of Connacht who are languishing at the foot of the league table. The westerners had an inspired home victory over Leinster and are on course to join their pool rivals in the European Challenge Cup quarter-finals but it has been Jekyll and Hyde from them so far this term.
Ulster are beginning to click under Matt Williams with a recent string of wins, including defeats of Munster, Connacht and the Scarlets. With their European aspirations at an end, the province's fast-approaching league games against Leinster (home) and Munster (away) could define their season.
After some nerve-jangling moments against Montauban and Clermont Auvergne, Munster still have some work to do before they can book their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the 11th successive year.
But the men in red, just like our good friend Santa Claus, just seem to conjure up big performance after big performance when required. Their heroic efforts against the All Blacks at Thomond Park last month will live long in the memory. Over a million viewers tuned in on Irish television to watch that game.
And while there are genuine reasons to be concerned for Irish rugby at the moment - how the ELVs are impacting on the game, the effect of the recession on provincial and international attendances, the scheduling of AIB League fixtures on Heineken Cup weekends and how our underage players are not matching up in the physical stakes with their international counterparts - it seems best to take a 'glass half-full' attitude into 2009. Cheers!
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