Gordon D'Arcy: Judging Irish rugby on last three months is foolish

Retaining the Six Nations and winning World Cup pool constitutes a decent season for us

Ian Madigan is 26 now and, while his skill-set has never been in doubt,  he just needs to play consistently at Number 10.

Ian Madigan is 26 now and, while his skill-set has never been in doubt, he just needs to play consistently at Number 10.

 

This column being a review of 2015, it proved a year when Ian Madigan spent most of that time wedged between a rock and a hard place. I felt he coped admirably. There has been a constant, mostly healthy debate about him in public by supporters and in the media and privately by the two sets of coaches he serves.

Ian is 26 now, and while his skill-set has never been in doubt – I have seen him grow into the quality player he already is and can undoubtedly become – he just needs to play consistently at Number 10.

Not even someone with his natural talent can simply feel their way through occasional forays as a first-five-eight. He needs two years in the position before anyone should make a proper, honest judgement about his career to date. The move to Bordeaux Bégles will give him that opportunity.

My only fear is he goes to France and falls into the utility trap again. Lionel Beauxis is a decent outhalf with 20 caps for France so the 10 jersey won’t be neatly folded in Ian’s locker. No harm. Every player needs that sort of competition.

Ireland can hardly afford to leave a 90 per cent place kicker in exile.

That would present a new doubled-edged sword for him as selection for Ireland could open the door for Beauxis to keep him off the Bordeaux team.

Still, Mads had no choice but to leave Leinster once Johnny returned from Paris. He desperately needs two full seasons playing at outhalf.

It was supposed to happen two seasons ago but Matt O’Connor felt Jimmy Gopperth was the better outhalf. It even hurt me a little as Ian ended up at 12 for my last season as a Leinster player while I wore number 23.

It’s hard not to wonder how he would have gone against Argentina if he had been playing outhalf regularly for Leinster, like Paddy Jackson in Ulster, and trimming the flaws from his game in the most difficult of positions.

Ireland suffered

O’Connor, in choosing a veteran New Zealand outhalf over him, was making what he believed was the best decision for Leinster. Ireland suffered as a result. That can’t happen anymore and David Nucifora admitted as much last week.

So, presumably, the IRFU and provinces are on the same page now.

In future the constant mixing and matching of Ian, which has slowed such a promising career, need only occur if his place-kicking, or injury, forces him into Ireland’s starting XV.

Off the back of Madigan’s quietly efficient performance down in Limerick alone, to discard him from the Ireland squad next season would be a mistake. He was as good as he has ever been. He nailed his goals, there were plenty of sensible kicking from hand and nobody receiving his pass was put under pressure. He made all his tackles too. The mercurial element, so natural to his game, was largely parked for the evening.

Not much more can be asked of your outhalf. That’s progress in itself.

In 2015, how much more could have been asked of Irish rugby? I have to say we should be happy where we are at.

Let’s break it all down. Ireland retained the Six Nations title for the first time since 1949 despite the retirement of our record try scorer. Not bad going. At the World Cup we won our Pool before losing to a team playing at a standard that was superior to the best team we were able to put out on the field.

We have to accept that. Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere has to accept that the Rugby Championship teams played at a level above their Six Nations opponents.

I’ve previously written about the knock-on effect caused by the flooding of European leagues by Southern Hemisphere players due to increased finances from television and philanthropic club owners. The IRFU are swimming against the tide by endeavouring to strike a balance between recruiting foreign players who don’t impact on the national team (the damaging Gopperth/Madigan situation being a valuable lesson in this regard).

We knew once English and French clubs wrestled majority control of the new Champions Cup that a tough winter was coming and still Leinster were a score off making the inaugural final.

But the World Cup exacted a heavy, punishing and continuing toll on the provinces. From the squad that beat France, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien (when he was needed most), Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Conor Murray, Richardt Strauss, Keith Earls, Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe have since been robbed from crucial provincial games due to injury.

The provinces probably won’t get out of their Champions Cup Pools – Ulster still have a real chance – so the focus must now switch to the Pro 12. A successful season would be all four Irish sides still in contention for the play-offs come the last weekend, with one of them going on to win it.

The Pro 12 has to matter. If it doesn’t we should disband it and join the Premiership. That means all four Welsh and the two Italian sides must embrace the competition. The Scarlets have clearly got their act together.

The Welsh and Irish are the backbone of the Pro 12. But the carrot of Champions Cup qualification is paramount to increase the standard of rugby.

We are already seeing that. But it has to improve again. When the English and French clubs lost two or three of their pre-Christmas European matches they always sent second string teams to Dublin in January. And we hockeyed them. That’s because they had refocused on their next league game, realising that’s what really mattered to them at that time.

It’s more or less the situation the Irish provinces find themselves in now. This needs to be a virtuous circle; the improved standard of rugby, which in turn demands better officiating, will attract more money from the title sponsors and television revenue which provides the means to sign a player that can have the impact of Isa Nacewa or Rocky Elsom.

The culture

That doesn’t just mean a world class player. Rocky only came for one season but the week he arrived Munster were coming to Dublin and he insisted on being involved. He showed the type of character and professionalism that immediately improves the culture of a group.

The foreign player must be willing to stay around through good and bad times. The other type of player, who moves on prematurely without making a memorable (positive) impact, leaves a tear in the club’s fabric when his next destination is announced mid-season.

Francis Saili is already looking like seriously good business by Munster. He is a grade one calibre All Black who improves anyone who plays alongside him. Just see the type of tackles and carries both he and Nacewa made on Sunday evening. They showed no concern for their personal well-being or future earning potential. That makes young, home-grown players realise what it takes to be world class. The importance of that cannot be overstated.

The same applies to project players. But, where possible, we should look within our academy systems.

Secondrow remains a problem area. That problem is height. We have plenty of 6ft 5in locks of genuine talent but the 6ft 8in Mal O’Kelly or 6ft 10in Devin Toner type player is very hard to find here. And until we do we will struggle because the next Paul O’Connell may not have been born yet.

People seem obsessed with replacing Paulie as a leader. Henderson will return from that awful injury and hopefully bring many years of inspirational play, but we should just stop and savour what O’Connell gave us in his last year as Ireland captain.

The leadership void will be filled. I was impressed by CJ Stander’s good manner with the referee and how he sought to carry hard when his team needed him most against Leinster. He definitely has leadership traits. When Pete O’Mahony returns they will dovetail nicely together.

I also see Stander doing a Stephen Ferris type job for Ireland in the Six Nations. Most of all his presence will benefit Jamie Heaslip.

People wonder why we don’t see the open field running associated with Jamie between 2009 and 2011 anymore. That was only possible because Ferris, Dave Wallace or Seanie O’Brien freed him up to be a number eight first and foremost. That can happen again now due to Stander’s presence.

Massive step

Regarding Garry Ringrose, it was great seeing him show what he can do in Limerick. He looked comfortable, with a genuine turn of pace, and his footwork in defence when Simon Zebo came down his channel impressed me.

He has got what it takes so why rush him? The Champions Cup, never mind the Six Nations, is a massive step up. Maybe Ireland could drip feed him into their squad like they did Brian in 1999 when he was on the bench for the Italy game before being capped in Australia that summer.

By the time the plane leaves for South Africa in June the likes of Ringrose and even Jack O’Donoghue might be essential, either due to mass injuries or continued good form.

We should never use the Six Nations to blood players. The competition doesn’t lend itself to that sort of risk. Remember what happened to the teenage English centre Matthew Tait? Gavin Henson and the Welsh supporters will but not many others.

So, clearly, the 2015/16 season is going to be a tough old slog. Confirmation, if you will, that the great era stretching back to Munster’s first European title in 2006 is now over. Three Six Nations titles and five European Cups in eight years is unprecedented success for a country with 140 professional players. They were the best of times.

Considering so many of those players have moved on, 2015 hasn’t been such a bad year. We had some horrible luck in that French game at the World Cup. We shouldn’t ignore that.

If the supporters remain loyal to the provinces and the IRFU get the balance right regarding recruitment and keeping the best players at home, there is no reason why the second half of this new World Cup cycle cannot be successful.

To judge Irish rugby on the last three months would be foolish. If anything it should temper expectations for the coming six months.

We should still expect to win our three home matches in the Six Nations and be competitive in Paris and Twickenham, and an Irish province should win the Pro 12. Amidst all of this the Ringroses, O’Donoghues and Stuart McCloskeys should be given time to grow into the players we will eventually need them to be.

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