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To Infinity And Beyond

To Infinity And Beyond

No, this isn’t going to be a piece about Jeremy Davidson (aka Buzz Lightyear), but a look ahead to the Irish touring parties for the summer as Adrian O’Farrell runs the rule over the Ireland squad for the summer tour and the Ireland ‘A’ squad for the Churchill Cup.

The Churchill Cup takes Ireland to Infinity Park in Colorado to play Canada and Georgia. As inspirational as this venue sounds, the tournament is rather brought back down to earth by having the final at Dicks Sporting Goods Park in Denver. 

We should be happy to have the Aviva Stadium.

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The same day that Leinster contest the Heineken Cup final, their mates will be taking on Canada in Vancouver’s equally ‘dawn of a new age-sounding’ Thunderbird Stadium.

Whether this is indeed the dawn of a new age in Irish rugby will depend largely on how the tourists succeed in bringing through the exciting young talent seeded throughout the party.

For all that this is the most remarkably successful season in Irish rugby history, some of the frontliners are heading into their 30s.

There is a likelihood that some of the Grand Slam starting fifteen will need to be replaced for the World Cup in two years’ time.

By September 2011, Brian O’Driscoll will be 32, Gordon D’Arcy will 31, Ronan O’Gara 34, David Wallace 35, John Hayes 38, Marcus Horan 35.

In addition, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Jerry Flannery will all be 32.

It’s impossible to predict whose bodies and form will hold up over the interim and there is the example of England in 2003, but there is a need for options for all of these players.

In some positions they are coming through well. At the current rate of progress Cian Healy will be an awesome prop in two years and will come in for Horan.

Rory Best will have just turned 29 and Sean Cronin may well be pushing him and Flannery for a start.

Mike Ross has enjoyed a terrific season with Harlequins, culminating with being named in the Guinness Premiership Team of the Season.

His return to Ireland to play with Leinster next season will surely see him figure more prominently in Ireland’s plans.

All of a sudden, the panic in propland seems over, especially with Tom Court continuing to improve and Tony Buckley over his illness.

Second row may not be such an issue as it is entirely possible that both incumbents may last through to the World Cup in good nick.

At that point they would be massively experienced, but even the like of O’Connell and O’Callaghan may suffer from fatigue and lack spark at that stage.

Leo Cullen is in the form of his life and may challenge O’Callaghan in particular over the next year or two, but he is marginally older so hardly represents the future.

Leading the next generation are Ryan Caldwell and Devin Toner. Caldwell is a fine prospect but needs to work on his discipline a little, while Toner has come through very well for Leinster this season and has pushed O’Kelly hard for his position.

Donnacha Ryan, of course, though currently playing in the back row represents another option at second row. He will be coming into his prime in two years time at 27 years of age.

This summer sees further recognition for Ed O’Donoghue, he of Queensland Reds fame who has come on a lot this season for Ulster and may grow into a force to be reckoned with. He won his first Ireland ‘A’ cap against Scotland ‘A’ in February.

The Irish back row situation could hardly be healthier with the competition for places being particularly savage.

Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris will be in their prime in two years, while for the 27-year-old Niall Ronan this summer represents an opportunity to state his case as the perfect openside foil for the other two, in the absence of Sean O’Brien.

Chris Henry’s rise this season has been nothing short of meteoric, while David Pollock is another who is likely to enter the frame over the next season or two. With Denis Leamy still only 27 there is no major concern over the back row future.

At half-back Tomas O’Leary will still be around with pressure still being applied by Eoin Reddan who will be 30 at the World Cup, while Isaac Boss will be 31.

Other than that there is Connacht’s Frank Murphy, but it has to be said that there aren’t too many youngsters making inroads into this space, with the exception of Paul O’Donohoe at Leinster.

The big imponderable is at out-half, bearing in mind that Ronan O’Gara can’t go on forever.

Jonathan Sexton’s recent Heineken semi-final performance certainly suggests he is the heir apparent. In fact, this is the best he has played since he gave a tour de force for Ireland in the Churchill Cup last year.

In his absence, Ian Keatley will have a ding dong with Niall O’Connor for the possession of third place in the pecking order, as Ian Humphreys pays a high price for his defensive frailty.

If this serves to inspire Humphreys to work on this side of the game, then I believe he has the greater talent of the three of them and can go on to press Sexton in the succession stakes.

In the meantime, both Keatley and O’Connor get a great opportunity to impress the national management.

At centre, there may not be the like of an O’Driscoll or D’Arcy coming through but there is talent there nonetheless.

James Downey’s form for Northampton has been one of the more gratifying stories of the year. He has returned to the kind of form that saw him touted as a big prospect for Ireland and deservedly makes the Churchill Cup squad.

The centres on the Ireland team to play Canada and the USA will come from Darren Cave, Keith Matthews, Barry Murphy and possibly Gavin Duffy.

Cave is an outstanding prospect and Murphy has re-found his form, but both are outside centres so with uncertainty over Paddy Wallace travelling, Keith Matthews will never have a better chance of getting a cap.

On the wings, Ian Dowling looks certain to win a much-deserved first cap as he is the only out and out winger travelling before being joined by Johne Murphy, Simon Keogh, Fionn Carr and Felix Jones (who is joining Munster in the summer).

There will undoubtedly be a bit of mix and match right across the three-quarter line with Denis Hurley and Gavin Duffy fighting it out for full-back but Duffy perhaps also being considered for wing or even centre positions.

Those that saw the Leicester v Cardiff Heineken Cup semi-final will have seen Johne Murphy become a considerably more influential player than he has previously been for Leicester.

Even allowing for his thankfully not costly penalty shoot-out miss, he looked a more complete footballer than I had taken him for.

Whilst this summer will afford opportunities to impress for the back-three slots, it’s not as if there is any major issue here with the incumbent Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald likely to be around for some considerable time to come.

The Heineken Cup and Lions tour have left Ireland with no option but to throw some youngsters into the furnace but there is enough experience on board to help them through.

However, this keeps it interesting and may produce much better long-term benefits than the usual.

Regardless of how the tour and Churchill Cup goes, though, and in stark contrast to the economy, Irish rugby would appear to be in line for a soft landing after the golden generation has left us.

That’s enough from me. I’m off back to the Gamma Quadrant of Section 4. All together now – To Infinity and Beyond!