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World Cup door open to Irish starlets

With the World Cup just over a year away, and Ireland's frontline players operating under a carefully managed protection policy, the provinces face into their most challenging season since the inception of the Magners League a decade ago.

Squad strength, particularly in Munster and Leinster, will be tested like never before and the respective coaches find themselves in the difficult position of trying to create cohesion without having the luxury of consistent team selection.

Injuries do not help matters, with only Ulster heading into the campaign close to full strength. Leinster have captain and second-row Leo Cullen, prop Stan Wright and flanker Kevin McLaughlin on the long-term injury list while Munster are without twin totems Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls.

Connacht, the province who can least afford an extensive casualty list, have captain John Muldoon, fellow international back-row Johnny O'Connor and prop Robbie Morris all unavailable for the foreseeable future.

On the plus side, there is the return to fitness of a clutch of players who were forced to miss Ireland's summer tour, which is excellent news for their provinces and national coach Declan Kidney.

Sean O'Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Denis Leamy, Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris and Rory Best bounce into the new campaign bursting with pent-up energy and enthusiasm and it is safe to expect eye-catching displays from this sextet in the early rounds.

The combination of injury and enforced rest also opens the door for the next generation of Ireland players.

Although large chunks of Ireland's World Cup squad already appear to be set in stone, there is the possibility of several bolters emerging from the provinces.

The likes of Ulster flanker Willie Faloon, Munster prop Dave Ryan and a collection of talented Leinster backs will hopefully get the opportunity to demonstrate their talents, while the responsibility resting on the shoulders of Connacht tight-head Jamie Hagan is good news for Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal.

Wright's injury also provides the opportunity for Mike Ross to get the run of games he was denied last season and strengthen Smal's hand further by proving his undoubted worth as a destructive scrummager.

There has been much talk of a downturn in Irish rugby, of a fading ‘golden generation', but there is still plenty of punch in Ireland's established internationals and when they are not available, encouraging signs of fresh-faced talent eager to become the next group to acquire the golden mantle. The challenge may be greater than before, but it is far from insurmountable.

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USA exacted revenge over Ireland for their 22-12 Women's World Cup second-round Pool B defeat with a demolition of the girls in green by 40-3 in the 5th/8th-place play-offs yesterday.

Ireland's only score of the match came from a Niamh Briggs penalty after 29 minutes.

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