Rugby World Cup: Rory Best can lead ireland into new era
Another World Cup, another search for answers following a disappointing exit. This one doesn't feel like four years ago, however.
France 2007 was a succession of kicks in the solar plexus; this time around, Ireland's World Cup was a positive story up until last Saturday. Which makes the frustration all the more intense. A first semi-final appearance seemed to be Ireland's destiny at New Zealand 2011.
That they failed to achieve it makes the World Cup a failure, a fact that was readily acknowledged by the players.
“We were very confident,” said Tommy Bowe. “Things had been going well for us. Off the pitch it has been good, it just really is the ending we didn't want.”
So what happens now? We are in the situation that Ronan O'Gara was dreading when he spoke to the media that first week in Queenstown.
“A lot of us realise it's our last shot at something big,” said the out-half. “It's important we go for that, as opposed to finding an excuse and coming home and one club winning a European Cup, that's not good enough.”
Only a first victory over New Zealand on the three-Test tour next summer could hope to seriously diminish the sense of disappointment felt now.
It is customary to talk about four-year cycles geared towards peaking for World Cups, yet Wales and New Zealand are making a mockery of that approach.
The Welsh have fallen upon a winning formula almost by accident (only six of their players started in the same position for the Six Nations win over Ireland seven months ago), while the All Blacks had four years to unearth a replacement for Dan Carter and have chanced upon a young fella (Aaron Cruden) who looks like a cross between Eminem and Screech from ‘Saved By The Bell' but could also be the best playmaker in the competition.
For Ireland, there will be no Genesis Report, no root-and-branch investigation and blame game because, ultimately, it was not a bad World Cup, it was a bad day against Wales. However, there are areas to address before England 2015.
There will be usual wild calls for a new head coach but, while the
fallout from 2007 rendered Eddie O'Sullivan's position untenable, there is no such situation this time with Declan Kidney.
Winning a Grand Slam in your first season does that, as does beating Tri-Nations champions Australia in what should still be regarded as one of the most significant victories in Irish rugby history given the stage, pressure and circumstances in the build-up.
Kidney has a two-year contract and his lieutenants Les Kiss, Greg Feek and Gert Smal are among the best in the business.
What he does not have is a backs coach, as Alan Gaffney's time with Ireland is up. This is an area in urgent need of attention as Ireland have only intermittently produced compelling attacking play over the past few seasons.
The chances of getting Joe Schmidt to share his Leinster duties with Ireland, the way Gaffney and Feek have done, are remote given the busy brief of a provincial head coach but, as primary funders, the IRFU make the rules here and Schmidt would be perfect alongside Kidney looking after the backs.
Whoever Ireland go for, there needs to be a sharp improvement and a discernible style of back play, for that was woefully lacking against the Welsh.
We're banging the drum again but Irish rugby must embrace the concept of running onto the ball from depth. It is something that you used to be taught from underage up, how to time your run and take the pass at full tilt, and Keith Wood was doing it 15 years ago.
Occasionally, static runners can be used to set up ball, but only then.
It is not a hard skill, it is a mindset and one that Irish rugby urgently needs to embrace.
Kicking for the corner rather than the posts is a positive statement but swiftly becomes a negative if it does not translate into precious points on the board
Too often, we have seen this Irish team camped on the line with no clear idea of how to manufacture a try beyond basic pick-and-go or pop-and-drive manoeuvres.
There is plenty of time on the training pitch to come up with moves for this situation, dummy mauls, triple targets to keep defenders guessing, reverse flicks to players inside, which can be triggered by a call from the scrum-half.
Given how Australia's David Pocock performed yesterday against South Africa, his absence against Ireland looks an increasingly significant factor in the Wallabies' defeat.
Sam Warburton too was a major thorn in Irish sides, and it sometimes took two or three forwards to shift the Wales captain, not helped by Craig Joubert's laissez faire policy at ruck time.
Sean O'Brien had a big tournament in the No 7 jersey and the Irish back-row, against the Wallabies and Italians, worked around the fact they did not have a natural ‘fetcher'.
However, it would make sense to develop an out-and-out openside and there are several candidates out there; Willie Faloon, Dominic Ryan and Peter O'Mahony chief among them.
For the first time since 1999, Ireland will go to a World Cup with no Ronan O'Gara. They are fortunate to have Jonathan Sexton, who will have just turned 30 in 2015, but a second out-half is harder to pin-point.
Ian Humphreys is the most talented but has missed his chance at this stage, Ian Keatley has the potential to come through while Sexton's Leinster colleague Ian Madigan could be the pick.
Replacing an institution
Brian O'Driscoll was visibly distraught after Saturday's defeat. For one of the greatest players to have played the game, from any country, never to reach a World Cup semi-final is a travesty.
He has worn the Ireland No 13 jersey for so long (12 years), it is difficult to imagine anyone else in it but Ireland will need someone there in 2015. Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden are all live candidates and let’s see how Nevin Spence develops in Ulster.
But it will not merely be a case of replacing the centre, there is also the issue of replacing the captain. Paul O'Connell turns 32 in a few days and may not be on the scene in 2015. Rory Best (29) still has age on his side and had a superb tournament.
He was Ireland's best player ahead of Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy. Even with a shoulder injury complicating his build-up, Best (left) was immense against the Welsh in his tackling, loose play, and covering.
He commands tremendous respect among players and coaches and, depending on Jerry Flannery's recovery, is out on his own as first-choice hooker.