Six Nations: Time to let young guns fire Ireland
As the beginning of another Six Nations Championship looms, Irish rugby is in danger of a prolonged period of stagnation unless younger players such as Ulster's Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy are given their chance on the international stage.
That is the opinion of noted commentator George Hook.
Hook, the voice of rugby on RTE and a former head coach of Connacht, London Irish and the United States national team, has warned the IRFU that an overly cautious approach to player selection could greatly impinge on the future of the game in Ireland.
Speaking during a visit to Belfast on behalf of the IRFU Charitable Fund, Hook said: “Sometimes you have to be prepared to only win eventually.
“At the minute we're trying to carry on winning when we should be prepared to lose now in order to win in the future.
“We need to accept that we must call time on a few players in the squad, otherwise at what point does a young player get given an opportunity for Ireland?
“I remember a team going to Twickenham in 1962 with nine new caps and getting hammered by maybe 50 points to three.
“But among those new caps turned out to be Willie John McBride and Ray McLoughlin and that's what you have to do sometimes in international rugby.”
Declan Kidney's 39-man extended squad for the Six Nations was announced last week and, despite the presence of a number of young and uncapped players, veterans such as Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Donnacha Ryan, Rory Best and perhaps even Donnacha O'Callaghan will all still be heavily relied upon to make significant contributions to the Irish cause.
The side were deprived of the services of a host of experienced players for November's Autumn International series that saw a dispiriting defeat to South Africa but victories followed against Argentina at the Aviva and Fiji in an uncapped international at Thomond Park.
In those pair of triumphs the inexperienced players made quite an impact, with Ulster's Craig Gilroy grabbing all the headlines following a hat-trick against Fiji and a try against the Pumas on his full international debut.
However, with the exception of the stricken Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Paul O'Connell, Ireland's front-line players are set to return to the fold when the starting XV is named for Saturday’s clash against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
That will likely mean little playing time for the emerging starlets who impressed back in November, a step that Hook feels will be a backwards one.
“Look at how Gilroy opened up Argentina and where was he before that?,” he said.
“Once again, it will be Gordon D'Arcy at centre when it should be Luke Marshall, who I think is a gorgeous player. We need to give these young kids a chance.
Marshall is absent from the initial squad due to the finger injury that kept him out of Ulster's two previous squads but is thought to be nearing fitness and would be available for a call-up as the competition progresses.
Following the comprehensive victory over Argentina in November, a win that crucially maintained Ireland's standing as one of the world's top eight sides for the 2015 World Cup draw, Declan Kidney's men have been installed as third favourites for the Six Nations but Hook feels too much confidence has been gleaned from the triumph over the tiring South Americans.
“Argentina were at the tail end of the season and that win has been used to monumentally paper over cracks,” he claimed.
“This is one of the best scrummaging teams in world rugby and yet they just handed it to us.
“There's still huge problems in the pack and very little has been done to fix the problems we saw at Twickenham last year.
“How can we have a set of hookers who can't throw the ball into the line-out?”
Despite the return from injury of Sean O'Brien, the European Player ofthe Year in 2011, and Chris Henry's stellar form for Ulster, Hook adds: “This is the nation that produced Nigel Carr and Keith Gleeson yet we continue to play without an openside flanker.
“We can't expect to win without a number seven.”
With such perceived failings in mind, Hook opines that Ireland may struggle throughout the championship, an eventuality that could spell the end of Kidney's five-year tenure as Ireland head coach.
The former IRB Coach of the Year recipient is one of Ireland's most successful leaders, having won the Heineken Cup twice with Munster before guiding Ireland to long-awaited Grand Slam glory in the 2009 Six Nations.
However, his contract runs only until the end of this season and Hook feels the players may respond positively to the replacing of their decorated coach.
“Barring a dramatic championship that I really don't see happening, I can't imagine Declan going beyond the Six Nations,” he said.
“There are clear indications that the players are tired of his methods which is just something that happens.
“You can see from the Heineken Cup how strong France and England will be if their players turn up and, even though Scotland couldn't beat the skin off a custard and I don't know what's wrong with Wales, I think the Italy game will be very difficult as well.
“The decision to bring them into the Pro12 was inspired and they are getting better year on year so it certainly won't be a guaranteed win like people think.”
Ireland begin their Six Nations with a visit to Wales on Saturday and will also make trips to Rome and Edinburgh while playing host to England and France.
With speculation mounting that retirements are possible after the Lions tour to Australia this summer, most notably that of O'Driscoll, many have said that this could be the last roll of the dice for Ireland's so-called ‘Golden Generation'.
If Hook is to be believed, we may have to watch them bow out not with a bang but an ill-fitting whimper.