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Provinces lead the way as Ireland display their rising talents


New hope: Bundee Aki is one of Ireland's emerging stars
New hope: Bundee Aki is one of Ireland's emerging stars

By Tony Ward

It just gets better by the week. The results stand for themselves with another clean sweep of four wins from four and Connacht returning from South Africa with nine points from a possible 10.

Cast your mind back not so long ago to a time in Celtic League rugby when the Welsh, in particular, were decrying the IRFU and the player-welfare policy whereby contact time was being centrally managed by the pipers in Lansdowne Road.

We'll not pretend it's all Philip Browne's doing as the developmental system has been meticulously cut to measure.

However, that has been added to enormously through the quality of coaching and overseas coaches brought on board.

Like any bubble, it could burst though, and given we've known more downs than ups, we are not going to dabble in arrogance.

We are where we are on the back of superb game management from the top down. And it ain't half shabby on the field either through Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony et al.

I'll not go through the various provincial teams and what each are achieving in their own right other than to say that never have we had a system whereby all four are performing so well when the international elite are away.

If you trawl through our front-row stocks it is hard to believe there was a time when Marcus Horan and John Hayes carried the competitive hopes of the nation.

We did have some scope at loosehead, but on the tight side, upon 'the Bull' (a converted lock) did every hope and aspiration lie.

Now we are coming down with alternatives on both sides Indeed, when Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan came ashore we wondered about our second-row future.

Look at it now and, apart from James Ryan, who do you select from Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson?

When Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy called it a day, it seemed there could be no tomorrow. Yet here we are a year out from the World Cup and the midfield options continue to grow.

I suggested a fortnight ago that it was two from three - Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki. Just two weeks on and I take that back.

I firmly believe that Ringrose is now the O'Driscoll equivalent; set in stone at 13.

But watching Sam Arnold, plus the unrelated Chris and Tom Farrell, Stuart McCloskey and Rory Scannell and the centre larder is every bit as well stocked as all three rows of the scrum.

The stand-out performance of the weekend, in his first start following a serious knee injury, was delivered by Chris Farrell at Irish Independent Park in Cork.

Even by modern-day standards, Farrell is a massive unit. And while he uses that bulk to his advantage, his range of passing stands out.

If Johann van Graan can nail the midfield pairing at Munster - and it has to include Farrell - then game time wearing No.12 will surely see him step up alongside Henshaw or Aki as a potential partner to Ringrose at next year's World Cup.

With Andrew Conway and Keith Earls on fire and Mike Haley, on limited opportunity, suggesting even greater things, for the first time in quite a while I am really excited at what is evolving at Munster.

There is also an appreciation articulated best by O'Mahony in recent interviews that Leinster, as of now, are in a different place, but that is the level of aspiration within this current Munster squad.

Such comment is no sign of weakness, indeed quite the opposite. The return of Farrell could well provide the most vital spark.

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