With three of the provinces currently contemplating European quarter-finals and the fortunes of Ulsters also on the rise, Ireland coach Declan Kidney has spoken of the benefits that provincial success can bring to the national squad.
Kidney has his extended RBS 6 Nations squad down in Limerick this week as they crank up preparations for Saturday week’s tournament opener against France at Croke Park.
With Connacht and Ulster showing improved form and Leinster and Munster both reaching the Heineken Cup’s last-eight, the Irish coach has denied that there is now extra pressure on him to maintain that winning trend with Ireland.
“That’s what you want, you want the provinces doing well. I’d like to think that in my other life (as Munster coach), we always tried to build it on what was coming through,” he said.
“If the provinces are doing well, it’s the collective confidence that that brings through.
“They had a right go at one another during the Christmas break, with the provinces. They were all beating each other. It’s to try and build on that confidence.
“It is another step-up to try and bring that through to international level. We’re a small country, if we work really hard we can compete.
“If we compete then we’ll have to see what way the scoreboard is at the end of the day but the important thing is to make sure we can compete.”
Players like Ulster centre Darren Cave and Leinster prop Cian Healy, two of the seven uncapped players in the extended Irish panel, are pushing to make their Test debuts.
Whether they will make their bows in the coming weeks remains to be seen but the way Ireland’s 2009 campaign has been structured, with a summer tour in May to the USA and Canada and the senior management also taking charge of the Churchill Cup squad, there will certainly be a shop window for ‘fresh faces’ to impress in.
“Everybody would love to see how every player will go in an international and yet if you hand out international caps just to experiment then you’re probably devaluing the jersey,” Kidney explained.
“Every training session is an opportunity for guys to show themselves. We’ve tried to put together a programme, Paul (McNaughton) and myself, whereby by necessity guys are going to get extra matches.
“Fellas will get a go but it’s the balance between giving them the go in an environment where you can’t expect ten first-cappers to go out and win an international. That just won’t happen.
“You need to have a mix and match. It’s one of the great debates that happens around every international team – who should be on, who shouldn’t be on?
“You have to put a value to the jersey. Any time you represent your country, a fella needs to know I’ve worked hard for this and I’m not turning it up.
“Whereas if you’re just handing them out, I think people will lose respect very quickly for it.”
Commenting on injuries in recent provincial matches for centres Keith Earls (dead leg) and Paddy Wallace (head), Kidney remains hopeful that the pair will be fit to be considered for the French game.
“With Keith, we’re hoping that it’s not ligament and that it’s more a bad dead leg, which would sideline him for a few days.
“That’s the best of the scenarios. He’s gone in for a scan and we’ll know more later probably.
“Paddy will be training this week. He looks to be good to go. He’s just seeing a specialist this week just to make sure he’s alright for the games.
“Because of the break he will have got (missing the Ulster-Stade Francais match), he’d have got any required break that was needed between now and his next match. He’s looking good to be available for Saturday week.”