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New green shoots emerging


By Tony Ward

Although buoyed by Ulster's European form of late there is a generally held consensus that Irish rugby is in transition. Certainly by Heineken/Champions Cup standards set in the past we have dropped off the pace yet when it comes to bread and butter Pro12 we occupy positions two to five in the race for top four play-offs and top six Champions Cup qualification.

For a widely accepted onset of mediocrity it's not too bad a place to be. Not for a minute are we suggesting we drop standards and allow a lowest common denominator become the norm, but success is relative.

In that key respect we have been spoilt by what was undoubtedly a golden generation of indigenous rugby players allied to a much more level financial playing field.

I still believe success to be cyclical and continue to trust in the structures we have in place to insure the ongoing development of home-grown talent from knee-high up.

Even in what we perceive to be a time of crisis - bear in mind it is only Leinster mathematically out of the European equation with two pool games still to go - there are signs, to borrow from our economic friends, "of fresh buds growing and new shoots emerging".

Needless to say no one is scrutinising form and putting that fine-toothed comb through potential more than Joe Schmidt. Between injuries, retirement and loss of form, the preliminary Six Nations squad set for Carton House should and I have no doubt WILL possess a very new feel about it.

Lessons have been learned from the World Cup experience and I suspect the head coach, while not needing to reinvent the wheel, will be adapting to meet the needs of the game at Test level as it is currently evolving.

The key is in Schmidt giving all four provincial coaches their head to go for it by way of full-on first-choice selection.

On the back of that, all four grounds will be heaving as up-to-date form dictates Pro12 points as well as individual positioning ahead of Six Nations selections and of course a meaningful divvy-out of bragging rights too.

All things being equal Schmidt would be slow to give the green light domestically but he like the rest of us must be confused beyond reason as to what his starting line-up to face the Welsh will be. The trick as ever will be in balancing experience with some sort of form and new blood.

Injuries and loss of form has opened the door to others and therein lies the greatest challenge for Schmidt.

So what players specifically have, in modern game parlance, been putting up their hands?

For Ulster it's been mainly behind the scrum with the midfield triumvirate of Paddy Jackson, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall growing in confidence and competence at a different level.

Beyond that I would add Craig Gilroy (still only 24) and Andrew Trimble although a relative pensioner at 31 still providing that physicality and presence down either flank.

For Connacht so many young guns are emerging but on realistic form both Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran have to be in the preliminary frame.

At Leinster Rhys Ruddock (another relative rookie at 25) has stepped up to the mark on the blindside of the scrum and could well nail down that position to face the Welsh, although I suspect Schmidt may be tempted to play a Ruddock, Robin Copeland or a CJ Stander-type figure in the second-row should that need arise.

Munster may not be winning but they're not that far away. Specifically James Cronin, Mike Sherry, Stander and Copeland have impressed of late, while Andrew Conway and Niall Scannell have hinted at greater things ahead.

Donnacha Ryan and Toner would appear the most likely lock combination in the absence of Iain Henderson and Paul O'Connell, but like Schmidt and just about everybody else your guess is as good as mine! These derbies have an added dimension.

Belfast Telegraph


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