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Gordon D’Arcy: Players can come from left field and make the Ireland squad, but you need to catch a break

If you’re not starting European matches as first choice, it’s a much more difficult route to the national squad

January not only marked the halfway point in a season but a natural benchmarking moment in time for players with international ambitions as the Six Nations loomed into view. You knew where you stood in the provincial pecking order and that in turn would inform your position in the reckoning for a place in the Ireland squad.

There were one or two players that proved the exception to that rule of thumb over the years, but it was a tiny minority. Under the old format of the Heineken Champions Cup, it was a month that provided its fair share of excitement and an adrenaline rush as teams tried to ensure a place in the knockout stages of the European tournament, having played four of six games.

It was high stakes rugby, players singular in focus from a provincial perspective, but it also served as a graduated stepping stone in standard from league to the Test match arena and a yardstick to measure a player’s aptitude for international rugby.

For me the new structure doesn’t have the same sense of jeopardy based on the attitude of clubs to team selection in the opening two rounds. Having said that, there are very few sides who don’t have a chance of making the last 16 in this season’s Champions Cup. It’s a curious quirk.


The pathway to the Ireland team goes through a tiered system at provincial level. If you’re not starting European matches as first choice, it’s a much more difficult route to the national squad, as these games represent the final point of reference for Andy Farrell to adjudicate on form when it comes to the personnel available to him.

I know from my own circumstances back in my playing days that it is possible to come from left field in Irish selection terms, but it is reliant on several factors, one of which is usually injury, good for one player, unfortunate for another.

In January 2004, I was enjoying a good run of form, which provided an antidote to the acute disappointment of missing out on selection for the 2003 World Cup in Australia. I was restored to fullback, my favourite position, while Leinster’s international contingent was away but knew as soon as they returned I would be relocated to the wing.

While I was playing week in week out, starting in the European games and involved in the extended national squads, I knew I was not being considered for the Irish match day 22. For that to change, I needed a break, and it came in the form of an injury.

The opening materialised at 13 because of an injury to Brian O’Driscoll. The then Leinster coach Gary Ella asked me if I fancied a trot at outside centre, as we walked out to a training session ahead of a January European game against the Sale Sharks at Edgeley Road in Manchester. I had nothing to lose and delivered a decent performance that caught the attention of national coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.

Suddenly from the periphery of the Ireland squad I started in the 13 jersey against France in Paris and ended up as player of the tournament in the 2004 Six Nations. I’m not trying to be boastful and mention it just to illustrate the serendipitous change of personal circumstances. I could and would not have envisaged that pathway into the national team.

Injuries aside, there are unlikely to be any bolters of that nature in Andy Farrell’s starting 15 against Wales in the Principality stadium on the first Saturday in February when the Six Nations kicks into gear. That does not mean there isn’t plenty to play for this weekend as Farrell is likely to announce the squad for the tournament ahead of the final round of European matches.

The Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa and the Ireland A game against a New Zealand development team were useful reference points in selection terms ahead of the November Test series but for all those in contention there is now a larger body of work to evaluate, culminating in individual performances this weekend.

Ireland’s four provinces face different assignments and for a couple, namely Munster and Ulster, there are several selection issues that will be both instructive and interesting to note.

Andy Friend’s Connacht, perfectly placed in their pool standings, should be in good spirits following their handsome victory over the Cell C Sharks as they welcome Brive to the Sportsground in the Challenge Cup, young centre Cathal Forde’s performance a highlight from last weekend’s victory.

Leinster, in the absence of Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Charlie Ngatai and with Robbie Henshaw still missing, will still bring a strong squad to face Gloucester at Kingsholm. Jamie Osborne, who excelled in the victory over the Ospreys might get a chance to display his versatility by moving in one place to 12 and partnering captain Garry Ringrose in the centre.

Osborne has shown a great temperament to match his talent. Leo Cullen, as I suggested in the column last week, chose to start Harry Byrne against the Ospreys. The outhalf looked rusty as befits a player with precious little game time this season on which to lean. That said he played flat, carried well, and tried to manage the game but execution let him down on a few occasions.

While Leinster’s purple patch on the scoreboard coincided with his brother, Ross’s arrival, there might have been enough endeavour from the younger Byrne to warrant another start this week in Kingsholm, especially if he is surrounded by senior players.

The bigger selection quandaries lie in Belfast and in Limerick, off the back of which we will get a good insight into respective coaches’ mindsets and approaches. Ulster’s Dan McFarland is in a very difficult situation, presiding over a breakdown between selection and the way the team is set up to play and the disappointing net result.

On the evidence of recent matches, it’s hard to see how Ulster’s playing equilibrium of early season can be restored. There is a lingering question on how much Dwayne Peel’s departure has been felt within the environment or whether the weakness that Leinster, Benetton, and others exposed in recent weeks was always there.

The result in Italy last weekend was not the primary issue in many ways but rather the manner of the implosion from a winning position. There is absolutely no way that McFarland can persist with the same approach this weekend in France. He must somehow find a way to secure quality ball for the incredibly talented outside backs.

The final card he can and indeed must play is to whom he entrusts the game plan against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle side that doled out a thumping to Toulouse in their most recent outing in French Top 14. It could not be a more difficult assignment, but McFarland can choose how he approaches the task.

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different outcome. He must be ruthless, shake up the team, perhaps put some faith in some new faces and give an opportunity to players like David McCann and Cormac Izuchukwu to highlight a couple of talented young forwards.

Graham Rowntree has a stronger foundation than his contemporary up north. A five-point haul against the Northampton Saints should guarantee qualification and will allow him a free roll of the dice in Toulouse on Sunday week.

Coaches ask players to give them selection headaches and that’s what’s happening in Munster. Regardless of who wears the red jersey at Thomond Park on Saturday, the home side should hit their targets from the match, but in bigger picture terms, the selection will offer an insight into whether the Munster coaching ticket are willing to reward current form.

Take scrumhalf, for example. Rowntree must choose between the in-form Paddy Patterson, Craig Casey, and Conor Murray. All decisions have ramifications on players’ careers, the knock-on impact of being selected or not, and this one is no different.

I’ve been there. Matt O’Connor dropped me to the bench, preferring Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth as the 10/12 axis. I was subsequently left out of the Six Nations squad by Joe Schmidt. These are tough decisions, but successful coaches are pro-active in making decisions rather than have it foisted on them by poor form or results.

The make-up of the backline will be very intriguing as in almost every position there is some form of debate. Munster have looked more direct with Malakai Fekitoa in the centre. The Joey Carbery/Jack Crowley axis is still a work in progress and the jury’s out on just how effective it can or will be. Mike Haley at fullback is probably the only player who has his position nailed down.

There is a stark contrast between current situations which McFarland and Rowntree face; both challenged with tough selection decisions, but the Munster head coach can make them on his terms while for McFarland it feels like the last roll of the dice to try to save a season.