Ireland rugby supporters will be offered a glimpse of the future should they bite the bullet and pitch up at Thomond Park this evening when Declan Kidney’s side face Fiji (5:30pm).
In the wake of a fifth Test defeat in-a-row last weekend in Dublin, a 16-12 reverse against South Africa, a non-cap match against tier-two opposition may be something of a hard sell in these straitened times and, up to yesterday afternoon, just 14,500 tickets had been sold for the 28,000-capacity stadium.
Yet the national team has decamped to Limerick with a starting XV comprising uncapped backs Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson and six more players with fewer than 10 Test appearances, leading attack coach Les Kiss to believe there are many persuasive arguments to convince the rugby public to get behind what he views as an exciting and exuberant young Ireland.
“I think it’s a real good opportunity to come out and see young guys pull on a green jersey and you’d like to think they’ll acquit themselves well to wear it again more often,” Kiss said yesterday as IRFU officials announced tickets will be on sale at Thomond Park right up until kick-off with kids accompanied by adults gaining free admission.
“There’s been an injection in this whole campaign of a new group. There’s a new group that are stepping up to the mark, and who are starting to say we have to take responsibility where we take this team in the future. So there’s fusion of those things at the moment and it’s quite exciting.
“We understand that we haven’t been winning. It hurts us and it doesn’t sit well. It doesn’t. But on the other side of it you have to recognise what these guys are doing on a daily basis and to go into team rooms and the meetings, and the enthusiasm and the morale that is there. We need to get that win and we know that, and it’s as serious as that for us. We want to get that win because we know that if we just get through that the players will just gain a bit of momentum from that, so I encourage people to come out and have a look at this match. There’s some exciting young players and there’s some exciting older players as well.”
One of those older, more established players, Munster lock Donnacha Ryan, was forced to withdraw from the matchday squad yesterday due to flu-like symptoms but has been replaced on the bench by Mike McCarthy, whose man of the match performance last Saturday has inspired Connacht team-mate John Muldoon to try and emulate him, even in the unfamilliar openside position on the Ireland back row.
“Obviously the fact that Macca did so well last week, it’s a bit of a pat on the back for him and a lot of the lads are looking forward to bringing in their provincial form with them,” said 29-year-old Muldoon. “I’m no different. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
No disrespect to Muldoon intended but it is the younger generation that will attract most attention against a near full-strength Fijian side this evening.
Fly-half Jackson, 20, and 21-year-old duo Marshall, at inside centre, and wing Gilroy have been contributors to Ulster’s unbeaten start to the new season and since arriving into the Ireland camp this month, along with provincial team-mate and back row Iain Henderson and Munster’s young loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne, both of whom made Test debuts last weekend, have more than caught the imagination of Kidney and his coaching staff, Kiss included.
“There seems just to be this uninhibited enthusiasm about going out there and putting on the Irish jersey in a way that they can represent themselves well and each other well,” Kiss said.
“No fear? I’m not sure if it’s quite that. I think there’s always a fear that exists and I think it’s a healthy fear. I wouldn’t say it’s anxiety but a fear and an enthusiasm and if we create the right momentum and get on the front foot the way we’d like to I would suggest that the space would be available for them to express themselves the way they’d like to.”
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