Grand Slam win gave us an­swers aplenty but rig­or­ous sched­ule will ask new set of ques­tions

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

THE great thing about Ire­land’s Grand Slam cam­paign is that it couldn’t have gone any bet­ter. Not only did the team win all their matches, they also dis­played an un­prece­dented strength in depth..

In a re­cent in­ter­view, the first thing Joe Sch­midt picked out as pleas­ing him was the ex­cel­lent form in train­ing of Ul­tan Dil­lane which con­firmed the Con­nacht man as an­other op­tion in the sec­ond row. You sus­pect this kind of thing is much on the mind of a man­ager who knows a suc­cess­ful cam­paign in Ja­pan de­pends on Ire­land’s abil­ity to over­come the kind of set­backs which dogged the team three years ago.

Op­tions abound. At full-back Rob Kear­ney re­mains un­der threat from Jor­dan Lar­mour, whose per­for­mance against Eng­land sug­gests he’s quickly ad­just­ing to in­ter­na­tional rugby. Kear­ney’s per­for­mances in the sec­ond half of the Six Na­tions, his best in a num­ber of years, il­lus­trate the salu­tary ef­fects com­pe­ti­tion can have on a player pre­vi­ously re­garded as an au­to­matic choice.

Only in­jury seems likely to cost Ja­cob Stock­dale or Keith Earls their places on the wing. Yet An­drew Con­way would have been close to be­ing se­lected for the France match but for in­jury and can come into con­tention again. Dar­ren Sweet­nam’s omis­sion from the squad for the Six Na­tions was a sur­pris­ing set­back in a ca­reer which had seemed on the up. He was, after all, man of the match in the Novem­ber win over Fiji and he can re-es­tab­lish his claims.

In the cen­tre, Sch­midt will have the en­vi­able task of choos­ing be­tween Rob­bie Hen­shaw, Garry Rin­grose, Bundee Aki and, be­fore too long, hope­fully, a fit-again Chris Far­rell. Johnny Sex­ton will start at out-half as long as he’s play­ing, but the days when an in­jury to the num­ber 10 could com­pletely sink the ship have gone. Joey Car­bery is al­ready a ca­pa­ble deputy and will only get bet­ter.

The one ir­re­place­able cog in the ma­chine would seem to be Conor Mur­ray (pic­tured) who doesn’t have an un­der­study of com­pa­ra­ble abil­ity. Kieran Marmion is cur­rently the man in re­serve, but Luke McGrath has the greater po­ten­tial in the long run. An ex­tended Le­in­ster run in Europe this year can help him make his case.

Be­fore the Six Na­tions be­gan, Tadhg Fur­long would also have seemed in­dis­pens­able, yet his ab­sence for the Welsh game saw An­drew Porter come of age as an in­ter­na­tional. The 22-year-old is a player of enor­mous po­ten­tial. Noth­ing sums up Ire­land’s strength in depth like the front row, where the shadow trio of Porter, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath looks a world-class unit in it­self.

A cou­ple of months ago there were con­cerns about pos­si­ble weak­nesses in the sec­ond row. James Ryan’s ex­tra­or­di­nary de­but sea­son has as­suaged most of those wor­ries. With Iain Hen­der­son back on form, Devin Toner still around and the in­trigu­ing Tadhg Beirne mov­ing from Scar­lets to Mun­ster, this area now looks pretty well stocked.

But it’s noth­ing com­pared to the cor­nu­copia of riches which is the back row. It seems strange to sug­gest that Dan Leavy might be dropped after be­ing one of the out­stand­ing play­ers in the Six Na­tions. Yet that may well hap­pen when Sean O’Brien re­turns from in­jury. ‘The Tul­low Tank’, as he showed on the Lions tour, is a gen­uinely world-class player. Then there’s Josh van der Flier, who seemed poised for a break­out year be­fore get­ting in­jured against France. We might have ex­pected to see more of Jack Co­nan in the last cou­ple of months and he has the po­ten­tial to make the same kind of im­pact as Leavy. Jordi Mur­phy looks re­ju­ve­nated and Rhys Rud­dock will be back to join the queue be­hind Peter O’Ma­hony and CJ Stander.

Per­haps the one team mem­ber we re­ally can’t re­place is Sch­midt. His even­tual ap­point­ment as All Blacks boss seems in­evitable. Right now Leo Cullen and Andy Far­rell seem the most likely suc­ces­sors but nei­ther is quite the equal of the in­cum­bent. The longer Ire­land hold on to Sch­midt, the brighter the fu­ture.

It’s strik­ing how lit­tle time the Grand Slam he­roes have to rest on their lau­rels. There are the big Euro­pean dates for Mun­ster, Le­in­ster and Con­nacht ,and in June a tour of Aus­tralia which should test the team in ways the cham­pi­onship did not. Then, on Novem­ber 17, the All Blacks hit the Aviva. Chances are that when the next Six Na­tions rolls around some rep­u­ta­tions will have bur­geoned and oth­ers di­min­ished.

You couldn’t imag­ine a much more rig­or­ous pro­gramme. It will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how Ire­land cope with it. In the past, sum­mer tours tended to get a bit lost amid the GAA cham­pi­onships, ma­jor soc­cer tour­na­ments and Olympic games. But the trip Down Un­der will be as in­ter­est­ing as any­thing hap­pen­ing in the rest of 2018.

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