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Rugby World Cup: Give Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara a call to sort out skills shortage

By Alan Quinlan

Published 24/10/2015

Green shoots: Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw offer hope for Ireland’s future
Green shoots: Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw offer hope for Ireland’s future

The knives have been sharpened and the inquest has begun. Where does Irish rugby go from here after exiting the World Cup at the quarter-final stage again?

With no Northern Hemisphere representative in this weekend's semi-finals, all the talk has been about the gulf in class and the style of rugby being played in Europe. For sure certain facets of the game have to be improved here, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not the solution.

The temptation when you fail can be to start from scratch, but that's a pointless exercise. Why should we cast aside such experienced players, coaches and a game-plan that has brought us back-to-back Six Nations titles?

Had Ireland gone to the World Cup and faltered on a grand scale an all-out rebuilding effort might have been required, but we are not as bad as we look this week.

But the fact is we were outplayed by an excellent Argentinian side and it'll be another four years before we can right that.

This Pumas squad play an easy-on-the-eye brand of rugby, but it wasn't their scintillating back-play that beat us: they took us on up front and our defensive malfunctions proved our downfall, particularly in the wider channels.

So what can we do differently for the next World Cup? We'll have to plan for at least three massive Test matches in as many weeks if we are to reach the semi-finals.

In order to perform at that intensity, there does need to be an improvement in the basic skills of the game: you need to be able to execute when the pressure is on, against the best players and, crucially, when you are fatigued.

For that to take place Ireland need to begin picking more naturally skilled players, but we also need to see more work done on the skills of the game from grassroots up.

Just look at New Zealand and the conveyor belt of players they have. They are the benchmark.

Now, this is not just Joe Schmidt's job. Players need to have those skills perfected when they arrive on his doorstep. Maybe it is time for an IRFU directive to coaches that an emphasis on ball skills rather than the direct game must be practised from U10s up to our provincial teams.

To encourage these basic skills to be honed, it is important that we have the best possible coaches in charge of this crucial education.

It would be a good idea to look at getting the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara involved in the review process and planning ahead of the next World Cup.

These guys have more than 260 Ireland caps between them and are the most naturally talented backs we've ever had. With Les Kiss leaving Schmidt's backroom team, the appointment of a highly qualified replacement is crucial.

But let me repeat, I don't think drastic change is necessary, just a gradual improvement of what we have there should suffice.

Improve your skills, pick more skilful players and encourage them to express themselves more. That should see a marked improvement in Ireland's fortunes.

It might be tempting to call for us to play with verve and go all-out attack, but you have to remember we play our rugby in Europe and we are not blessed with the best weather conditions.

You have to shove the ball up your jumper at times simply because it's not possible to play that style of game here.

Remember the criticism Rob Penney came in for when he tried to implement an attacking game-plan at Munster? In the dark, wet winters that does not work; we all don't play with the sun on our backs on dry pitches, but a mindset change is definitely required.

So what will the 2019 World Cup squad for Japan look like? Retirements, injuries and loss of form will naturally bring about an evolution of the squad.

From the last World Cup just 14 of the original 30-man squad were named this time. Six retired, six more didn't make the grade and four called it a day because of injury.

For sure we won't see 35-year-old Mike Ross included in four years' time and I expect that Tadhg Furlong and Marty Moore will take the reins at Leinster in the next year or two, while Ulster's Wiehahn Herbst will be naturalised by then.

Likewise, Rory Best won't make the cut either - he'll be 37 - while Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss could be overtaken by Munster's Niall Scannell, who is a real prospect.

Jamie Heaslip (35 in 2019), Jonathan Sexton (34), Keith Earls (32), Tommy Bowe (35) and Rob Kearney (33) are unlikely to be there, and I'd look to young, talented guys like Jack O'Donoghue, Jack Carty, Garry Ringrose, Sam Arnold, Jacob Stockdale and Stephen Fitzgerald to break through.

Having the now naturalised CJ Stander, Gerhard van den Heever and possibly Tyler Bleyendaal in the squad too is an exciting prospect.

But it has to be a gradual integration for young guys too. We could take a punt on these promising lads and throw them straight into the team for the next few Six Nations, but do you want them to do their learning in a losing team?

I don't want to see Ireland struggle. A Six Nations is a huge prize and I expect to see a large percentage of the current squad remain for as long as they can.

Yes, Argentina punted on youth when they joined the Rugby Championship and it has paid off, but they had little to lose. We have a solid structure here and there is no point razing it to the ground.

When these lads are good enough for selection, they'll get in. We saw it with Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson: as soon as they were ready, they made the grade. All we need to do now is encourage more lads like them to blossom in time.

Belfast Telegraph

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