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Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland’s old issue of lack of strength in depth rears its head again

Andy Farrell deserves time and help from the provinces in remodelling international team

The witch hunt is a little premature. Ireland are already in flux. Nobody is getting canned. There is time and space for Andy Farrell to remodel this team in his own image.

Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will see brighter days soon enough, and those lining up behind them still need to prove themselves in big European club matches. The problem for Harry Byrne and Craig Casey is these European experiences will come behind Sexton and Murray.

The Ireland team is already experiencing necessary growing pains at hooker, fullback, backrow, lock and prop, so let’s leave the 30-somethings where they belong until the current transition is complete.

Andy Farrell made a bold decision to put his faith in Ross Byrne at a critical juncture against France on Saturday night. Sexton's opinion walking off the field was clear for all to see. Inside two minutes that massive call had backfired as a reel of errors led to the eight-point deficit being stretched to 15.


The coach will have to wear the fact that Byrne was off the pace on arrival and that ruined any chance of a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

I’ve stood on the touchline myself, wondering: ‘Am I physically ready? Is my head screwed on?’

If both answers are “yes” you have a chance of nudging the game in the right direction. But only a chance.

The moment a reserve outhalf arrives on the field everyone looks to them for leadership. You have a backline craving decent ball. You have a pack gasping for territorial gain. You must be ready to guide the other 14 players.

I was never a decision maker but I understood the importance of making every opportunity count coming on against France in 2009. Having been close to retiring due to a succession of arm operations the stakes were extremely high inside my head.

Thankfully I was ready. In the minutes before crossing the white line, our fitness guru Jason Cowman flogged me with a mini warm-up. The sole aim was to get the heart rate up before contact.

Mentally, the player must find a way to tune into game frequency.

There is a gang of men returning from injury but Ireland's old foe – strength in depth – has reared its head again

The French bench could have overpowered the Irish reserves, who were simply not fit for purpose, if the situation demanded as much. There is no hiding from a non-negotiable in Test rugby; your subs need to guide you home or pull you back from the brink of defeat. Eddie Jones calls them "finishers" for a reason.

We cannot expect a spectacular finish when the Irish players wearing 16 to 23 fail to influence the game in a positive manner. By the time Fabien Galthié replaced his brilliant fullback, Fijian centre, sensational scrumhalf and giant South African lock the score was 35-20.

The Ireland bench was unloaded two minutes before Virimi Vakatawa’s untouchable try. That’s one glaring problem that can be solved by selection. There is a gang of men returning from injury but Ireland’s old foe – strength in depth – has reared its head again.

Saturday’s loss was hard to digest but it was a realistic reflection of where both teams currently exist.

I like the Sydney J Harris quote: "History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done."

The sleeping beast has woken up. The age of Galthié's underage stars is upon us. Antoine Dupont and the French backrow were operating on a different and more cohesive level to their opposite numbers. Nobody from Murray, Will Connors, Caelan Doris and especially CJ Stander were below par, but they were out there performing as individuals.

Victory never comes easy in Paris. Let’s keep that in mind. My Ireland team needed six trips spanning 10 years before winning in 2014. Even in 2018 it took 41 phases and a 45-metre drop goal to beat an abysmal French outfit.

Let's say Sexton kicked the three points before half-time. Let's also say he was not replaced by Byrne. I still believe France would have found a way. Robbie Henshaw pulled a try from thin air and with the set piece in turmoil how could Sexton have stopped France from pulling away?

Before the penalty try there was a feeling that this was the last chance to beat them for some time. The empty stadium was as helpful a landscape as any Ireland team is ever going to get. Particularly at 17-13.

But that is an Irish perspective. What about the French outlook? You imagine that neat little Romain Ntamack chip, chase and offload would have put Vakatawa through the green line no matter what the score. Their performance deserved more than 35 points.

That’s why perspective is needed.

Ireland is a team in deep transition. That puts the focus back to what is happening at provincial level

Ireland's primary strike runner – Jacob Stockdale – was struggling. He is a world class winger who must be given more time at fullback. We know what Stockdale is capable of – that massive left boot, his ability to beat any defender – convinces me to leave Hugo Keenan and Andrew Conway to battle with James Lowe and Keith Earls for the winger jerseys.

It is lazy terminology to label Stockdale's fumbles as unforced errors. When Rafa Nadal keeps thumping the ball back over the net in Roland Garros, is an error ever really unforced?

Stockdale kept running hard, proving his confidence is low but not shot. No Irish back can physically intimidate defenders like Jacob’s two strides before contact.

Think about the long game.

The evidence we have seen in 2020 drives home an obvious conclusion drawn from last year's World Cup: the four superpowers – New Zealand, South Africa, England and France – have revived the old world order.

Ireland are very much on a second tier with Wales and Australia but the Six Nations proved what Farrell is trying to achieve is going to take time.

The best Ireland teams I played on worked off two really strong provincial squads – Leinster and Munster – with enough Ulster players and the odd exile filling other gaps.

Munster are on the road back – that's two encouraging performances without the internationals – but the idea of flooding the current team with more fresh blood does not make any sense. This year Farrell has capped six players, with varying returns from Will Connors, Hugo Keenan, Ed Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, Doris and Rónan Kelleher.

Lowe and eventually Ryan Baird will bring that number up to eight.

Ireland is a team in deep transition. That puts the focus back to what is happening at provincial level.

The example I'd point to is John Hodnett. The 21-year-old flanker is working away on establishing himself in Munster. Eventually he will put pressure on the men further up the food chain. Alan Quinlan won 27 caps for Ireland but the toughness of the Tipperary blindside turned media darling had a lot to do with David Wallace and Simon Easterby sharing 137 caps.

That’s the importance of a Hodnett or a Tommy O’Brien in Leinster at the moment.

Same goes for Casey and Harry Byrne. Neither halfback has earned the right to dislodge Murray or Sexton but their exposure to Welsh and Scottish teams on a weekly basis means they can eventually ease into Farrell's thinking. In the meantime, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion and Gibson-Park could understudy.

The spread of underused Leinster players around the provinces is a good theory but what has it done for Ireland?

Under this Bunsen burner heat the team reverted to a game plan that was seared into their soul during six years of Joe

The Joey Carbery situation is desperately unlucky, even if he showed signs of brittleness in contact, while Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy slipped out of the national equation not long after landing in Belfast.

The future priority must be to bring through local talent in each provincial squad. Connacht understands the value of growing their own. At least Munster and Ulster can see the light.

Real progress is happening beneath the national radar. Ireland fell between two stools at Twickenham and Paris. There was clear intent to win with forward interplay and backs seeking space in the wins over Italy, Scotland and Wales but under the pressure generated by France and England several members of the Irish team struggled badly with the basics of their craft.

Nobody avoids criticism. Under this Bunsen burner heat the team reverted to a game plan that was seared into their soul during six years of Joe. Old habits die hard. Farrell knows this better than anyone. He also knows that true judgment of his work will be held off until the 2021 Six Nations. There is time to evolve, to integrate eight new players and choose which ones must stay in the reckoning.

Keenan has proved his worth. So too Doris. The others deserve more time. Especially Stockdale, Sexton and Murray. If you have some workable alternatives in the midst of change please let me know, because I cannot see them.