By Brendan O'Brien
It’s hard to recall any Irish coach describing the absence through injury of a Brian O’Driscoll or a Paul O’Connell or a John Hayes as “a good thing” and certainly not in the slipstream of a white-knuckle ride with the All Blacks.
That things have changed was evident again yesterday when Ireland skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy was able to look back on the November test window to date and theorise that the loss to the squad of Conor Murray has actually been, well, a plus.
“Conor Murray is certainly a world-class player,” said Murphy. “What would we do without Conor Murray? The guys who have come in have obviously filled his shoes and have done really well. It has been a great opportunity for us not to have Conor, because you’ve got to see a lot more of Kieran Marmion, a lot more of Luke McGrath, and John Cooney has also been in camp for the last couple of weeks. We might get an opportunity to see him this week as well. That way, it has been a real positive for the group, just not a positive for Conor Murray, because he missed out. He should be coming back nice and fresh and I think he’s going to be involved [for Munster] this weekend.
This Ireland team exists in a parallel universe to so many of its predecessors. It has boldly gone where no Irish team has gone before, time and again, and the beauty of this voyage is that no one on board is of the belief that there are no more worlds to conquer. A certain tournament in Japan next year is the most obvious of ambitions and Murphy turned the fear that this is a side that has peaked too soon with Japan in mind, suggesting instead that it is one still striving “to find another gear”.
He is as conscious as head coach Joe Schmidt of the need to add to the burgeoning strength in depth. In an ideal world, Ireland would have three players of the same high standard jostling for each of the 15 jerseys available. Scrum-half is one of those sectors still in need of further exploration. Marmion did exceptionally well against Argentina and New Zealand in filling what was for so long perceived to be something of a black hole beyond Murray. All the more so, given he has been struggling with an ankle injury since early October that requires surgery.
Connacht announced yesterday that their first-choice nine endured a recurrence of the injury — initially suffered in a Guinness PRO14 game against Ulster — when facing the Pumas and it will be February before he returns.
“The ankle was pretty okay in that it was stable,” said Murphy. “The physios could get him into a situation where he was very happy. There was never a worry when he was going onto the pitch that he was carrying that, but it is something that needed to be looked at after the fact.
“Starting those big games, you can see what he brings to a team. His work ethic, his defence, his speed to get around the park is really good. He can’t play the game like Conor Murray. We don’t want him to. He needs to be himself and he has been over the last few weeks.”
Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Rob Kearney, James Ryan and Jordan Larmour have all returned to Leinster after their shifts against New Zealand. So too has Dan Leavy, while Peter O’Mahony is on a monitored training load after suffering a dead leg last weekend.
There are plenty of volunteers to pick up the slack.
Murphy spoke at length about the opportunities ahead for the likes of Joey Carbery, Ross Byrne and Stuart McCloskey.
The Ulsterman, Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and Jack Conan were among those to speak for themselves with the press.
Schmidt has demonstrated a willingness to hand out caps to up-and-comers in what he terms to be “big” games. The second test against the Springboks, in Johannesburg three summers ago, and the first test in Australia five months ago speak for that.
However, the time for experimentation, and the opportunity for players to play themselves into the 23 or the World Cup squad, will slam all but shut after this, with the head coach having stated time and again that the Six Nations is no place for punts.
The expectation is that the USA will be game, if ultimately put away without much fuss, but it will be no easy task for players seeking to press their own individual claims while operating in combinations that are likely to be unfamiliar, if not altogether new.
“Some of the combinations... won’t have played together before, but everyone understands the philosophy of our defence and the philosophy of our attack and what we are trying to achieve, so as long as they can buy into that and they work together, they will solve the problems that they need to on the pitch.”