Results this month served as a clear reminder of Ireland’s place in world rugby’s pecking order.
At the outset of the 2010 Guinness Series Declan Kidney’s men were ranked fifth, with New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France, in that order, the pace-setters.
But defeats by the Springboks and the All Blacks have seen Ireland drop two places on the 95-rung ladder, with England and Scotland having eased past them into fifth and sixth positions respectively.
Argentina, who provide Sunday’s opposition at the Aviva Stadium, are eighth and hoping to gain at Ireland’s expense. Make no mistake; defeat in that one would be very damaging for Ireland.
A solitary win in the past six Tests is a grim statistic for a side which blazed a glorious, unbeaten trail through 2009.
Scotland (RBS 6 Nations), New Zealand and Australia (summer tour) and South Africa (Guinness Series) inflicted successive defeats, with a hard-earned 20-10 Dublin victory over Samoa on November 13 finally bringing that losing sequence to an end.
Last weekend, however, the All Blacks’ 38-18 victory provided a very clear marker as to the difference between where Ireland are and first place in world rugby. Irish heart and determination could not be faulted. But the fact remains that it wasn’t enough against opponents who, not to put too fine a point on it, were better in just about every facet.
Ireland’s November schedule was always going to be tough. South Africa, the World Cup holders, went in ranked number two and New Zealand as the world’s best. Declan Kidney’s men were hugely disappointing against the Springboks, given that they had beaten them in each of their previous three pairings.
With 13 regulars missing, South Africa were there for the taking in what was the first international rugby match at the new stadium. Ireland failed. Badly.
And although they were much, much better against the All Blacks two weeks later, that improvement wasn’t enough to see history re-written; Ireland still await their first win against New Zealand.
Losing to those southern hemisphere giants is one thing. But if, on Sunday, Ireland were to lose to Argentina — who, no harm to them, are not of the same calibre as their fellow-antipodeans — that would be a very different matter, the fact that the Pumas stunned everyone by finishing third in the 2007 World Cup.
Ireland’s delay in naming their team until today underlines the extent of their injury concerns; they know only too well that against opponents as aggressive as Argentina there must be no doubt about any |player’s physical ability to withstand the sort of punishment these particular tourists are going be doling out.
The importance of the result was admitted by Connacht hooker Sean Cronin who, with Ulster’s Rory Best and Munster’s Jerry Flannery sidelined by injury, now gets his chance to steal a march.
“A win on Sunday is a must for motivation and confidence for the Six Nations,” said Cronin whose international rugby experience totals 119 minutes.
With Tommy Bowe, David Wallace, Gordon D’Arcy, Stephen Ferris and Brian O'Driscoll all nursing injuries of one sort or another and Best, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney definitely out following last Saturday’s bruising showdown with New Zealand, Leo Cullen, Tony Buckley, Geordan Murphy and Damien Varley were drafted in earlier this week.
It has hardly been ideal preparation for the final match of an important series which was to have supplied answers, but instead would appear to have left Ireland still facing a great many questions at this stage.
Does Kidney know his best 22? More specifically, does he know his best front three? Or |his second row partnership in the event of Paul O’Connell not being available?
And who are first-choice half-backs? Does he seriously believe Eoin Reddan is a better scrum-half than Peter Stringer? Going into the final outing before the start of the RBS 6 Nations, the jury is still out on all of these issues and while it does not matter to any great extent what the chattering classes may feel on such issues, |it is important that the coach knows.
His primary role is to produce a winning team; massaging the egos of those who aren’t making the cut is secondary in the hard world of professional sport.
Ireland’s recent record against Argentina is not good, witness defeats in three of their past four encounters with by far the most damaging of those being the 30-15 Paris pounding in the 2007 World Cup.
We are at the end of the penultimate month of 2010 and with next year’s World Cup fast approaching, Ireland can ill-afford — afford bad choice of verb in the current economic mess — to go into 2011 having lost three out of four of their autumnal Tests.