A lot has changed in the international game since 2002 but this time of year continues to revolve around one word for players on the fringes of the first team: opportunity.
Twelve months out from the 2003 World Cup, Eddie O’Sullivan made it clear that the international window would be sink or swim for quite a few of us with ambitions of making the squad for Australia – he just couldn’t afford to experiment in the Six Nations.
I only had four international caps heading into September/November 2002 but by the end of that spell – after World Cup qualifier wins against Russia and Georgia, and Test match victories against Australia, Fiji and Argentina – I was almost in double figures.
I lacked belief heading into that international camp, I didn’t feel that I belonged. I couldn’t build the same confidence in green that I could rely on in red.
But by the time we wrapped up our victory against the Pumas, there was wind in my Irish sails.
The competition for the back-row was fierce – although I’m glad I’m not competing against the generous current crop – but I ended up starting our World Cup pool games against Namibia and Argentina, before dislocating my shoulder in scoring a try against the latter.
These November Tests are still so important for the development of players in the early stages of their international careers. Joe Schmidt will not only be giving clarity on his own international future at the end of this month, he will also have a much better idea of who he wants to take to Japan. And there are still spots up for grabs.
With that in mind, here is my wish list for this international window:
1. Keep building momentum
Irish international rugby has never been in a better place, so it’s vital that the graph keeps trending in the right direction.
Schmidt’s side have won 14 or their last 15 Tests, a run which included a record-breaking 12 successive victories, so winning all four matches this month will be the obvious aim.
Even if Ireland fall short against the All Blacks in two weeks’ time, it is vital that they can take enough out of that contest to really believe they can topple them in Japan, rather than relying on someone else to do it.
When they lost the first Test to Australia in June, they had a great opportunity to put things right on the two following Saturdays, but with a game against the US wrapping up this November schedule with a relative whimper, a morale-sapping loss to Steven Hansen’s side could allow doubts to linger until Ireland host England on February 2.
2. Ruthless against all-comers
The All Blacks show no mercy no matter who they are facing, and that is an attitude that I want to see develop in this Irish side over the next few weeks.
Ireland now have such strength in depth that there is no reason for them not to beat Italy and the US with plenty to spare even while experimenting with new combinations and giving inexperienced players some valuable game-time.
This is not disrespectful to the opposition, it is a realistic assessment of the quality at Schmidt’s disposal. Ireland’s performances need to match their position as the second-best side in the world.
Last November against Fiji, and the year before against Canada, we conceded a number of soft scores which showed a lack of ruthlessness and a soft underbelly. That cannot be allowed to fester.
I am not looking for perfect defensive performances – you are bound to concede tries – but I want to see Ireland really go after the tier-two teams; target their weaknesses and dominate them for the full 80 minutes.
3. Reserve No.9 to put his hand up
Conor Murray’s absence has obviously opened the door for Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney to stake their claims to be the Munster man’s definitive understudy.
It is quite possible that we will be none the wiser as to which of the three is best-equipped to fill that role after these four Test matches, but you would hope that one or all of them will stand out enough to allay fears that without Murray Ireland will not be able to challenge the world’s other top teams.
The scrum-half question is one of the most intriguing sub-plots of this month’s narrative with provincial bias adding fuel to an already fascinating fire.
Murray may yet make a surprise return at some point this month but McGrath, Marmion and Cooney should all get an opportunity to impress in the next few weeks.
Hopefully we will all be a little bit wiser as to who is leading the race for second spot by the time the final whistle sounds in the US game.
4. Improved defensive shape
Even though Ireland have dominated possession and territory in so many games over the last 12 months, seven of their last 10 wins have been by 10 points or fewer, including that 23-20 success against Fiji last November. The margins are generally very fine.
There have been a number of soft scores conceded; there is not a feeling that teams need to build 10 or 20 phases before squeezing over the Irish line. A linebreak and an offload has often been enough to unlock Ireland’s defence.
The frailties that we have seen in the Irish defence, particularly out wide, have largely been system-based, and the communication probably wasn’t as good as it should have been at times. You can be certain that Andy Farrell has been ramming those issues home this week.
5. Schmidt to sign on
My final wish for this month, and one that trumps the rest, is for Schmidt to sign on past the World Cup in Japan.
His totalitarian style may not be to everyone’s taste, but the reality is he is the best coach Ireland have had and, in my opinion, he is the best coach in the world right now.
Looking in from the outside, as a former professional, I am envious of the environment and culture that he has created. There is something special brewing in Irish rugby and there is one Kiwi wizard stirring the pot.
There may be a succession plan in place but keeping Schmidt should remain the IRFU’s number one priority.
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