|The Future? (Pic: munsterrugby.ie)|
Tomorrow the 24 year wait for Webb Ellis will end for a deserving New Zealand side. France at their best would find it difficult to beat the All Blacks in the form they have been in all tournament, and indeed since the last World Cup four years ago. And France are not at their best. Not by a long shot.
In any case, Irish eyes may be on tomorrow’s match, but they won’t be smiling. Instead there will be a sense of what might have been. France don’t deserve to be in the final, and if Ireland had beaten Wales then surely with 15 men they could have defeated France. If, if, if.
Once McCaw walks off the Eden Park clutching the trophy his career richly deserves, then it is time for Irish rugby to disengage from the World Cup proper and start picking up the pieces of this nation’s shattered dreams.
There are issues that need to be addressed between now and the Six Nations, some more pressing than others.
Lets start with the most important issue. Brian O’Driscoll will not be around for the next World Cup, and even though he is making noises about the next Lion’s tour in 2013, that is probably a step too far for even the world’s greatest ever centre. Therefore, before the next World Cup, Ireland need a new captain, one who is firmly established by the time England 2015 comes around. Would the next Six Nations not be the perfect place for Declan Kidney to bed one in?
The question that has to be asked is who fills O’Driscoll’s shoes? Of course O’Connell comes to mind, but in reality has he much more time left than O’Driscoll on the international stage? Kidney has to be bold and pick one of the younger generation as his leader. Jamie Heaslip would have been a shoe-in perhaps eighteen months ago, but now his mantle as the driving force of the back row has been usurped by the Tullow Tank, Sean O’Brien. Other candidates such as Rob Kearney and perhaps an in-form Jonathon Sexton spring to mind, but one look at world rugby’s greatest captains (at present Dusautoir, Parisse, and McCaw) would suggest that the rightful place for a leader is in the back row.
Which brings us to the next issue to be addressed. Ireland need a bona fide number 7. For all his qualities, O’Brien belongs either at 8 or 6, because his main threat is his ball carrying ability which is nullified if he has to scavenge for the ball in the ruck with the likes of Pocock and Warburton. Unfortunately a number 7 isn’t just going to magically appear, but it is imperative that before the next World Cup one emerges. In the meantime, how about experimenting with O’Driscoll at 7 as a stop-gap? Given his supreme ball-winning ability in the ruck, it’s not as radical a suggestion as you may think. Ferris could be slotted into the second row to give another option there, with O’Brien reverting to 6. This won’t happen of course, and the back row that finished this World Cup will probably start next year’s Six Nations. It is a solid back row, but when it comes up against a back row with a proper 7 cracks will appear.
The next issue is that of the half back partnership. O’Gara and possibly Reddan will not make it to the next World Cup, and as such the youthful partnership of Sexton and Murray must be given a chance to develop at test match level. The question is, if Sexton has an off day such as he is prone to, who comes off the bench to change the game? Ian Keatley has been given a chance with Munster with O’Gara in New Zealand and Warwick gone to Stade Francais, and he, along with Ian Humphries, must be blooded fully into the Ireland set-up in the coming years. Kidney must not be afraid to experiment.
It is lamentable but inescapable that the two O-Apostrophe’s in the second row are unlikely to make the short hop to England in 4 year’s time either. O’Connell and O’Callaghan have been great servants to the Munster and Irish cause the past decade or so, and whoever replaces them will have much to do to dispell their giant shadows. Donnchadh Ryan is the most likely candidate to replace one of the veteran locks, but who will join him? Ian Nagle has shown great potential, not least in his man of the match performance for Munster versus Australia around this time last year. Dan Tuohy of Ulster and Devin Toner of Leinster are others who deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy.
Kidney needs to don his white coat and goggle and experiment at centre too. He said during the World Cup that he sees Earls as the long term replacement for O’Driscoll, but there is doubts about his suitability for the physical nature of outside centre. Kidney for the next few seasons must pick and mix between Bowe, Trimble, Earls, Fitzgerald, McFadden, and heretofore uncapped players such as Danny Barnes and determine what combination will be potent enough to take on the world’s best once more in four years time.
There is no need for Irish rugby supporters to panic if Kidney experiments and results don’t go Ireland’s way for a while. The time for panic will be if the manager fails to experiment, and lets the squad stagnate until its vital parts fall away.