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Nobody remotely affiliated with Irish rugby wants to meditate over another four-year cycle. But, mustering as much gusto as possible in early January 2020, we can try to imagine the Ireland team at the next World Cup.
The first name is easy – Jordan Larmour at 15 – but history tells us a majority of the players Andy Farrell selects for the fast approaching Six Nations will feature at France 2023.
There are enormously difficult decisions to be made at halfback, or not. In any case, Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter, Joey Carbery and James Ryan are about to enter their prime years. CJ Stander is 29 but there is no evidence to suggest his astonishing numbers either side of the ball will fade any time soon. The same sentiment applies to Tadhg Furlong, who turned 27 last November, and Josh van der Flier (26).
What seems obvious is the attack must be shaped around Ringrose and Larmour. Mike Catt, Ireland’s new backs coach, knows this better than anyone. Since Larmour returned from Japan everyone can see this once-in-a-generation talent must be on the field when it matters most.
History also indicates the same misfortunes will be visited upon Ireland when the World Cup rolls around again.
An example is the dream backrow of Seán O’Brien, Dan Leavy and Stander – with Peter O’Mahony or even Jack Conan in reserve – being denied time together by cruel yet inevitable injuries to three of the five players.
History keeps telling us the often mentioned “learnings” will not register quick enough to match rugby nations like Wales and South Africa, who possess the “emotional quotient” and strength in depth to peak every four years.
It is not all bad news. Nowadays, the provincial squads boast quality in every position, with a Leinster-reared solution to most problems.
And yet, Ireland always comes up short in one or two areas when they enter the global arena. An obvious example was Rory Best battling on for another four years despite accumulating 89 caps by the age of 33 in 2015.
That he was still the best hooker in 2019 is an indictment of the system, not of the since retired captain.
That the Leinster private schools remain the cure for all that ails Irish rugby is another long-term issue, but Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan can combine to fill the national hooker slots in due course. From the St Michael’s and Clongowes rugby nurseries, Kelleher already looks the part, while Sheehan possesses the physical attributes of a modern number two.
“Dan has a nice, nasty streak to him,” said Trinity College rugby coach Tony Smeeth recently.
This sounds promising, but the recruitment of Rob Herring (a South African in Ulster) and Tom McCartney (a New Zealander in Connacht) shows the IRFU decision makers were keenly aware of a dearth in hookers.
Neither has worked out internationally.
Naturalised foreigners will dry up in the coming seasons due to the extension of residency laws from three to five years but, ideally, Kenyon Knox – a humongous 21-year-old South African tighthead who started for Munster last night – and James Lowe can match the contributions made by Bundee Aki and Stander.
That’s a tall order, because the durability of Aki and Stander will stand the test of time, especially if both stay with Ireland for a second World Cup.
Either way, unearthing strong men from abroad is all but over unless the recruitment of teenagers, like Knox or Roman Salanoa from Hawaii, straight out of high school becomes a widespread policy.
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