With Ireland’s 2011 World Cup campaign over, all of a sudden the focus is on the future. The time for change has come, albeit that Ireland dare not storm headlong into a hasty, ill-considered clearout.
Whilst the heroes of those four Triple Crowns and that 2009 Grand Slam have had their day, they cannot just be discarded en masse. Rather, it must be a structured process whereby the old hands are phased out at a sensible rate and young players drafted in to fill the very sizeable gaps left by the Golden Generation.
It won’t be easy to replace men of the calibre of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Ronan O’Gara who between them have 395 Tests-worth of know-how.
But at some point soon they are going to follow men like John Hayes, Marcus Horan and Shane Horan into the sunset and over the horizon.
Others — Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace, Geordan Murphy, injury-prone Jerry Flannery, Tony Buckley, Leo Cullen, David Wallace and Denis Leamy for example — are unlikely to add too many more caps to their collections.
So as they depart, vacancies are going to arise. Cue a clutch of Ulster hopefuls intent on filling some of those. Nevin Spence and Darren Cave instantly spring to mind.
With the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll partnership well past its best, the Ulster duo must now grasp their chances.
Injuries saw both miss out on the World Cup, enabling Leinster’s 25-year-old Fergus McFadden to steal a march.
To date he has spent his professional career trying to oust D’Arcy or O’Driscoll from the Leinster midfield. Unenviable task, witness just 38 starts since making his Leinster debut in 2007.
In contrast Spence, only 21, has already started on 27 occasions since making his Ulster debut against Ospreys at the end of 2009/10. And having picked up two Wolfhounds caps at the start of 2011 — as well as attending one of the seniors’ Six Nations championship camps — his name is on the IRFU radar. Ditto 24-year-old Cave, who has made 57 Ulster starts, a total which would have been greater but for the hamstring injury which saw him miss much of last season.
Having represented Ireland at Under-19, 20, 21 and Sevens levels, in 2009 Cave added a brace of full international caps against Canada and the USA on a tour in which his centre partner was Ulster colleague Ian Whitten, who marked his first two outings as an Ireland senior by scoring a try in each.
With O’Connell and O’Callaghan in the twilight of their careers, Ulster’s Dan Tuohy is in line for a call. Already he has two caps, having faced New Zealand and Australia in June 2010.
Like Cave and Spence, injury spoiled his 2011 World Cup prospects, but now the 26-year-old has made a full recovery and is back playing for Ulster. A good run in the next couple of months — particularly in the Heineken Cup against ASM Clermont Auvergne and Leicester Tigers plus the inter-pros against Leinster (December 26) and Munster (December 30) — would do him no harm.
Kidney saw fit to include him in that 2010 trek to the southern hemisphere, so he has impressed in the past. And with Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll being 33 and Donncha Ryan turning 28 in December, age rules in Tuohy’s favour.
Willie Faloon is another with something to offer, the World Cup having underlined the importance of out-and-out opensides rather than blindsides who find themselves having to play in this altogether different position.
True, at 21, Leinster’s Dominic Ryan could come through, though to do that he would be required to forge ahead of Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin and Rhys Ruddock in the Heineken Cup holders’ pecking order.
And Munster’s Peter O’Mahony, 22, could well mount a challenge given that he now looks like getting game time in the absence of the unfortunate Wallace. Chris Henry could emerge as a contender, too, though eight is his best position.
When O’Gara bows out, finally Jonathan Sexton will become Ireland’s undisputed first choice outside half, leaving room for an understudy. Ian Humphreys? Doubt it, as he is 29. But Paddy Jackson is only 19 and bearing in mind he will be 23 when the next RWC comes around, he has time to build a solid case for himself.
Irish Under-20s captain Niall Annett is tipped to continue his progress along with fellow starlets Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Conor Gaston, James McKinney, Blane McIlroy, Conor Carey, Iain Henderson and Chris Cochrane.
Add the names of Paddy McAllister and Adam Macklin, cross your fingers and dare to believe.