BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Ireland may have to endure some November pain

The new European gig was gripping at times but it did little to divert the impression the provinces are slipping under the shadow of an Ireland team on the up.

Time to catch breath. The four provinces may seek to further PRO12 ambitions over the course of the weekend in the RDS, Kingspan Stadium, Liberty Stadium and the Arms Park but, for the rest of us, this is the period before the storm that is the November internationals and after the changeable few weeks that made up the opening two rounds of the inaugural Rugby Champions Cup.

The new European gig was gripping at times but it did little to divert the impression the provinces are slipping under the shadow of an Ireland team on the up and one that now finds itself prepping for the arrivals of South Africa, Georgia and Australia.

It was during the last Guinness Series that the shift started, thanks to a day of ridiculous drama when Ireland careered into what would have been an unassailable lead against any other rugby nation on earth bar New Zealand and ended up being pickpocketed in those dramatic closing seconds.

What followed in the Six Nations cemented the view that Joe Schmidt, the Kiwi whose wide smile is so well known to the public and whose withering standards are taken equally for granted by his players, is a once-in-a-lifetime coach capable of great things with a side that all too often failed to deliver on their potential.

In a way, Schmidt’s successes at Leinster elevated the expectations on him to scarcely fathomable proportions, but he matched them all with Ireland’s only defeat post-New Zealand coming in Twickenham where Stuart Lancaster’s team of behemoths and World Cup fancies had just three points to spare on a luckless Irish opponent.

Now, here we are again, at the start of another season and one that will funnel us obligingly into the path of the 2015 World Cup where Ireland have been handed a pool devoid of southern hemisphere opposition and in grounds strategically placed in UK cities boasting large and vociferous Irish support.

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course. Schmidt is a coach of rare quality, but he has been tasked with an unenviable job over the course of the next month or so, starting with his coaching staff, none of whose credentials are in doubt, but whose run-ins to the upcoming fixtures have been less than ideal.

Take Simon Easterby, who was happily beavering away as head coach of the Scarlets at the start of the summer until John Plumtree’s decision to vacate his role as Ireland forwards coach and return home to New Zealand prompted a phone call to Llanelli. Easterby was impressive in his first media outing earlier this week when quizzed on the ins and outs of what was an abrupt change to the coaching ticket and, though his potential to slip into the impressive Plumtree’s shoes is not being questioned here, the fact is that he has some catching up to do.

Then there is Les Kiss whose early season focus centred on Belfast where he held the role of interim director of rugby with Ulster and where he will return after the World Cup. No doubt this too will be played down as an irrelevance but there is a reason Ireland coaches are employed on a full-time basis by the IRFU.

Of less concern but worth mentioning is the fact that the other two coaches, Richie Murphy and Greg Feek, will be getting their feet wet for the first time as staffers after temporary shifts in the national camp, but all that fades in comparison to an injury list which will stretch the country’s already limited supply of Test quality rugby players.

Team Ireland have already made the case for how this opens the door to others, but there is no debating the fact it leaves them with next to no wiggle room given the lofty reputations of their guests.

South Africa will use their European tour to throw a bone to some of their understudies, but they arrive in Ireland first-up with coach Heyneke Meyer talking up Schmidt’s team and staff and with the Springbok coach eager to continue his record of never having lost on this continent since taking charge in 2012.

Oh, and their last game was a defeat of the All Blacks.

Georgia’s visit, for all the talk of the eastern Europeans’ bulk and scrummaging prowess, offers some respite but then there is the small matter of the wobbling Wallabies who pitch up in these parts dogged by the same old charge sheets and controversies and with a new coach in Michael Cheika.

Vulnerable? Maybe, but then they hammered Ireland 32-15 this time last year despite a subsequent furore over a drunken night out in Dublin by half-a-dozen of the squad four days before the game at the Aviva Stadium.

Schmidt and a squad still replete with quality may well work their magic and do something electric, but the smart money is on Ireland feeling some pain next month even if the gain may become apparent further down the road.

— Twitter: @Rackob


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