Our regular columnist Adrian O’Farrell takes a look at the candidates to fill the famous number 13 jersey for Ireland and also previews the Heineken Cup action which kicks off tonight.
Successive Irish coaches have decried the notion that Ireland should build in four-year cycles based around the Rugby World Cup. And they are mostly right.
Irish rugby is not yet at a stage and in all likelihood never will be where they can afford to take this approach. We must always be looking for success in the here and now in order to keep the show on the road.
For one thing, our financial structure, with so much dependent on the national team, dictates that that national team continues to produce.
So the notion that we voluntarily take a short-term hit as we seek to expose callow but potentially exciting youth to the top level is unlikely to receive much support from the paymasters and therefore no coach is going to adopt it as policy any time soon.
From an ambitious supporter’s perspective, this may appear limiting, but in reality there is a fine line between developing for the future and throwing away the confidence inherent in a side that has been generally successful over an extended period.
So do not expect a radical overhaul of the Ireland set-up in the wake of the Rugby World Cup with a view to 2015. That’s long outside the planning range of an Irish rugby coach, other than a loose notion that many, many new players will emerge between now and then.
The one certainty in light of the news that Brian O’Driscoll will miss most of this season is that there will be significant change in the back-line in this key position. Declan Kidney can at least wait before showing his hand on this one, but the possibilities are fascinating.
Unfortunately, the evidence of this World Cup is that increasingly centre is a position for big men. Think of those who made an impression in the position and how in RWC 2011.
Aurelien Rougerie, Ma’a Nonu, Jamie Roberts and possibly Manu Tuilagi (though perhaps should be discounted for his off-field nincompoopery) are the names that come to mind.
Yes, Conrad Smith and O’Driscoll are class acts but neither had a World Cup to sing and dance about. The little-heralded Maxime Mermoz actually had a stormer in the final but it was a poor tourney for the little guys in the centre positions.
Kidney will not jettison Gordon D’Arcy until he feels that he has a better player in that position for that particular match, so he is likely to stay at 12 for the time being. However, I’d like to see Andrew Trimble get a run at some stage over the next year to see how he travels.
His form has been such that he deserves a run. The only concern I would have is whether his distribution skills are quite up to the mark. A second Ulster option is Nevin Spence, who has played at both inside and outside centre for his province this season.
The other alternative at inside centre is James Downey, which would also be interesting, but less likely given his English base. Either way, we would have some real power in the role, which has become increasingly important.
The new situation at number 13 is also fascinating. Tommy Bowe? Keith Earls? Luke Fitzgerald? Fergus McFadden? Spence? Darren Cave?
For me, it is Bowe who has the combination of pace, power, distribution skills, timing and ability to make big plays that is going to come closest to replacing the lynchpin that has been O’Driscoll.
Earls and Fitzgerald can take their chances in the now-reduced competition for wing berths in light of a Bowe and Trimble new centre partnership.
In any event, I think that Earls, in particular, is a better wing than he is a centre, as demonstrated by his exceptional finishing in the World Cup and over the past season.
Both he and Fitzgerald have looked a little lightweight in the centre at international level when given their chance there. Like I say, it is increasingly a big man’s position.
But stop this, because these are decisions for the future when we have an enormous weekend of rugby right in front of us. And a truly historic one as Connacht make their first ever appearance in the Heineken Cup.
In many ways their journey to this point has been as arduous and long as was Munster’s odyssey that culminated at the Millennium Stadium in 2006. The only slight pity is that they are not at home for their first match, but away to Harlequins on Friday night.
There will be a close eye kept on this as Harlequins are flying high under Conor O’Shea, with eight wins on the spin in the Aviva Premiership, including a 42-6 win over pool rivals Gloucester and an away victory over Leicester Tigers.
Conacht will do very well to keep them within reach throughout the match and a bonus point defeat would represent an exceptional performance.
By the way, there is something just brilliant about logging onto www.connachtrugby.ie and seeing ‘Next Home Match v Toulouse’ on the homepage!
So it does not get any easier. This is the Heineken Cup, so it’s going to be tough – but that’s a ridiculously tough draw for Connacht that looks even tougher now than it did at the time of the draw.
The weekend continues with Leinster away to Montpellier in a tough start to their title defence. The French club were only 15 minutes away from winning the Top 14 crown last season against Toulouse in the final, so there is plenty of quality there even if they have not started this season with quite the same verve as they languish in mid-table.
With McFadden the most likely bearer of the number 13 jersey, Leinster have bags of talent at their disposal. If they are to qualify from their pool they will need an away win or two.
With Bath and Glasgow Warriors also in the pool this looks the toughest place to win on the road and they may also view a losing bonus point as no disaster.
With Ulster at home to another French giant in Clermont Auvergne, given their mixed form there is no guarantee of a win there, nor indeed for Munster at home to Northampton. However, these two represent Ireland’s best chance of a win this weekend.
The thought of a clean sweep is a bit shocking but cannot be ruled out given that the form of the provinces in the aftermath of World Cups previously has not been good.
Perish the thought. Munster to storm through and save the day! They may not be at the peak of their powers but this is after all at Thomond Park. If it has indeed been a car crash before that, then they can be relied upon to pull it out of the hat.