Gordon D’Arcy: natural changing of the guard is imminent

Japan 2019 marks the beginning of the end for some illustrious careers

Ross Byrne:  Now 24, he looks a beautifully balanced player every time he pulls on a blue jersey. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ross Byrne: Now 24, he looks a beautifully balanced player every time he pulls on a blue jersey. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Bob Dylan summed up this column with a line from Street Legal: “But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.”

Let me explain. In 2003, as Ireland played out a successful World Cup in Australia – when losing in a quarter-final wasn’t seen as failure – it was apparent that the country had a young generation of players who would carry the team for the next 10 years.

Come 2015 Paul O’Connell was the last man standing. You know the rest of them. You definitely know their names if you have been reading this column. If not, it no longer matters because you know all about new players like James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Joey Carbery and Andrew Porter.

We all should recognise that their time is now.

I missed the cut in 2003. The consequence of being discarded meant I stayed at home playing for a Leinster team stripped of our household names. Losing four and drawing one of our opening six matches, we recovered to go on a five-game winning streak, three on the road, before welcoming back the internationals as the squad combined to trounce Biarritz 32-6 at Lansdowne Road.

Only 7,200 loyal souls showed up for that early December game. Very different times but the challenge was similar; how to alter a settled group playing week in week out, and more importantly keep winning.

The natural order was that returning internationals would start in Europe so, to accommodate Girvan Dempsey, I shifted from fullback to wing and eventually centre.

Similar changes will happen over the coming weeks but it should not be guaranteed. A natural changing of the guard is beginning to happen, as we will see across the provinces in the coming six months because Japan 2019 marks the beginning of the end for some careers.

No transitional period is ever easy. It takes courage. I remember how it felt in 2015. You rage against the dying of the light just as your body rages against you. It is a fight on two fronts, with the man who is taking your jersey and with constant niggles slowing ageing limbs.

All the Pilates in the world cannot turn back time.

This is by no means a fait accompli. Johnny Sexton is not going to gift Ross Byrne the Leinster 10 jersey he fought unbelievably hard to finally make his own deep into the 2009 season.

As an athlete you only see through your own tunnel. For the team to be successful a coach must get all this tunnel vision pointing in the same direction

No, Johnny has already spoken about playing until 2023. Somebody will have to forcibly remove him. And that’s very good for business because if one of the Byrne brothers or Carbery takes over from Sexton in the Ireland team any time soon we will have ourselves a brand new world class outhalf.

Best of luck to all pretenders.

Real opportunity

It wasn’t always this way. When Brian O’Driscoll retired Jared Payne, having been recruited from New Zealand, was next in line until Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose were ready. Same goes for O’Connell with Devin Toner a guaranteed selection until Ryan matured.

These days there are more options. It’s what makes the man management at this moment in Irish rugby so important. As an athlete you only see through your own tunnel. For the team to be successful a coach must get all this tunnel vision pointing in the same direction.

It comes down to selection. Take the Leinster backrow. Caelan Doris, Scott Penny, Max Deegan and Will Connors will rightly feel like they have earned the right to start in the Champions Cup. Now, explain that to Rhys Ruddock and Josh van der Flier.

Something has got to give. Honesty is the only currency here. Helping them see what you see and then hope they can understand their role in the greater scheme.

This is a real opportunity for the players left at home. I am the best example having gone from not making a World Cup squad in 2003 to being nominated for World Player of the Year in 2004 (Schalk Burger won it).

Ronan Kelleher: the Leinster hooker has shown his worth in front of all the watching eyes. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ronan Kelleher: the Leinster hooker has shown his worth in front of all the watching eyes. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leo Cullen and other provincial coaches have twisted a glaring negative into a positive by offering the rare gift of settled game time to young players. Six wins from six and top of the table was the response by Leinster’s coming men.

A game here, a rested international there and the odd injury is how last season went for these players but now the likes of Ronan Kelleher at hooker has shown his worth in front of all the watching eyes. Or take Scott Penny and his three 80 -minute runs at openside.

Drop me if you can.

The provincial coaches are planning for the here and now while also mapping out who they would like to see contesting key positions in six, even 12 months time. Injuries will ruin almost all these plans (example: Jack Conan’s foot) but decisions still need to be made about which way they want to go.

A high-performing organisation can only operate with a clarity of individual roles. The wonder is how the head coach ever sleeps. Delegation must be key.

Plenty of the players I have mentioned will feel like they should have either travelled to Japan or featured more out there

There will be a World Cup hangover for some, and there will be pressure to play these players into form because class is permanent. You can’t let them languish because their mood will spread like a virus. You must build back up their confidence. That understandably angers the young gun who feels like he has earned the position.

Fresh eyes

Good. You don’t want him to be a happy-go-lucky flanker or prop. You want him hunting down the senior man. You want training to have an edge. Then you want everyone having lunch together, to kiss and make up.

But the coach must recognise when the moment for real change has arrived.

Think about the conversations Leo, Stuart Lancaster and Robin McBryde (fresh eyes are always the best) will be having this week about who has earned the jersey and who needs to play and how Leinster go about winning their opening four Champions Cup fixtures.

Andy Farrell will need the fresh eyes of Mike Catt because the next Ireland camp is only a few weeks away. Catt’s opinion on how Andrew Conway is looking in comparison to Jacob Stockdale will be important.

Andrew Conway scores a try for Munster agains Ulster. Right now, on the eve of the Champions Cup, he would be the irresistible selection in the Ireland back field. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Andrew Conway scores a try for Munster agains Ulster. Right now, on the eve of the Champions Cup, he would be the irresistible selection in the Ireland back field. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Nature versus nurture. One winger has earned the Ireland jersey, the other needs filling up to return to the phenomenal form he showed in 2018. I think back to the sliding doors moment early in the World Cup quarter-final when Stockdale went for the interception that came off every time he put out his hand the year before.

Conway was the difference between Munster and Ulster. His try was the difference between the game being filed away as a bore or an entertaining home victory. He showed this form at the World Cup but he was underused because the Ireland management stuck with the proven ability of Keith Earls and Stockdale.

Conway is forcing Farrell to revisit this conversation. Right now, on the eve of the Champions Cup, with many miles still to run until the Six Nations, he would be the irresistible selection in the Irish back field.

Others can and should create a similar conversation, because right now there is a clean slate.

Leinster’s performance in Galway was promotion of the old, the new and Andrew Porter. Look at his try. The Leinster frontrow overpowered Connacht’s defence as Cian Healy took Kelleher’s offload before Porter carried a winger, a prop and a scrumhalf over the line.

Plenty of the players I have mentioned will feel like they should have either travelled to Japan or featured more out there. It is no coincidence that players like John Cooney are channelling that frustration into their performance. That’s the sign of a top professional. Having been preparing for Test matches since August, they are already deep into their rhythm.

I know Leinster will probably come close to using 60 players this season. They have done remarkable work to reshape their culture

A prime example is Ross Byrne. Now 24, he looks a beautifully balanced player every time he pulls on a blue jersey. So, it begs the questions, how do Leinster plan to cater for Sexton, the Byrne brothers and Ciarán Frawley? One of them could benefit from being loaned out to a Pro 14 club rather than being held as an emergency option.

Best academy

Frawley and Harry Byrne need exposure, not a return to the All-Ireland League. Either one of them could be recalled if injuries pile up.

I know Leinster will probably come close to using 60 players this season. They have done remarkable work to reshape their culture despite losing stalwarts like Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and Joey Carbery to arch rivals (player movement is becoming like Serie A).

This is the reality of success along with growing the best academy in Europe.

The non-international Leinster team have proven themselves good enough to win the Pro 14. Having been raised on a diet of European success, they have become proven winners which makes it very hard to return to supporting roles.

Ulster’s John Cooney kicks a conversion against Munster. It is no coincidence that players like Cooney are channelling that frustration into their performance. That’s the sign of a top professional. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ulster’s John Cooney kicks a conversion against Munster. It is no coincidence that players like Cooney are channelling that frustration into their performance. That’s the sign of a top professional. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

It comes back to efficient man management by Cullen and Lancaster. To create a virtuous circle they must reward certain people.

Players want to play. Even if the succession planning is done properly players will inevitably move on. However Cullen and Lancaster are the best men to oversee this changing of the guard. They will need to convince some senior players to embrace a supporting role, or enjoy pre-retirement seasons in France or Japan.

Making such a call is why coaching is only for a chosen few. This is an enormous challenge and one that Cullen has expertly handled so far, and while it doesn’t get easier in 2020 it has to happen.

PS. The IRFU signing off on Munster’s two incoming Springboks, RG Snyman and Damien de Allende, is a huge step towards winning trophies again. And yet, I lament the lack of indigenous talent coming through their ranks.

With Keynan Knox, Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander naturalised in the Munster pack, it does raise concerns about just how well their academy is producing local players. The guard can only be changed if the talent is unearthed. Ulster just fielded a pack with no Ulster men. Munster must not go that way.

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