An evolution being achieved by revolutionary means

Paddy Jackson wouldn’t be human if his mind didn’t park the processes that all players swear by as kick-off approaches today and wander back four years to the first and, until this, last time he wore a green jersey at Murrayfield.
An evolution being achieved by revolutionary means

Jonathan Sexton was injured that day, too, but Declan Kidney had eschewed the obvious course of action which would have been to promote the been-there-done-that Ronan O’Gara in his place.

He opted for the untested 21-year-old from Ulster instead.

The court of public opinion wasn’t kind to Jackson when the dust settled and the belief he had a stinker seems to have solidified as the seasons ticked by. Not so. Run the tape again and he had a decent body of work behind him by the time O’Gara came on in his place in the final quarter.

The problem was that he missed all bar one of his four kicks at the posts. Add in a costly, failed penalty to touch and the muddle that was Ireland’s game management after the break and the sense spread of simply too much too soon. But then Test rugby waits for no man. Or boy.

“It is a big step up for guys from club level to this because, when you play, that window to make a decision is so small,” says Jamie Heaslip. “The really good players don’t need it, they are gone, and if you are thinking about it at international level in either attack or defence that is 10/20 metres.

“That’s where this kind of experience over the last couple of years has been ingrained into a lot of lads. Even as recently as the tour (to South Africa) and the November series with all the different permutations we had to use, that experience in the group going forward is vital for us to grow.”

Joe Schmidt expounded on the ‘transition’ that his Irish squad was experiencing 12 months ago when setting his sights no higher than a top three finish in the 2016 Six Nations and it’s a word Heaslip offered up again ahead of today’s opener against the Scots.

It seems intuitively wrong given Ireland are among the favoured sides for honours in this year’s running having lowered the flags of all three SANZAR sides between June and November and yet Heaslip’s observation stands up to scrutiny.

The equivalent of just one World Cup cycle has passed since Jackson made his debut in that 12-8 defeat and yet, in just Brian O’Driscoll, O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Mike Ross and Eoin Reddan, the squad has lost the grand total of 501 caps worth of experience from that 23.

Only seven of those who featured in 2013 will do so again tomorrow — although Tommy Bowe and Cian Healy were two among a litany of absentees through injury at the time. An entirely new officer corp has had to form. Mere lieutenants have pushed up the ranks to status of general.

There are no shortage of those today, even in the absence of Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, and yet seven of Schmidt’s latest squad is still in single figures for caps, Niall Scannell is poised for a debut off the bench and then there are CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong with 10 and 11 appearances respectively.

Eighteen debuts were handed out by Schmidt in the course of 2016 and Ireland’s graph has been following an upward trajectory.

It makes for a neat juggling act by Schmidt but a necessary one as he keeps one eye trained on Japan in 2019.

But maybe the most astonishing feat is the ease with which the new blood finds the vein at Test level.

Rare is the Irish rookie of late who hasn’t, at the very least, managed to keep his head above water and then there have been those who have adapted as if to the flick of a switch.

CJ Stander is an obvious example of someone who arrived on the international scene fully formed but look at Stuart McCloskey at Twickenham two seasons ago or Joey Carbery in Chicago. Or Tadhg Furlong from day one.

That may be the most curious aspect of all.

Schmidt’s attention to detail and his insistence that his players match it has become central to the legend that has built up around the Kiwi coach and so the simplistic conclusion from the outside looking in was that this mental workload had to favour those who had been exposed to it the longest.

It was a theory that gave legs to some lazy assumptions about a supposed Leinster favouritism for a time.

That sort of parochialism has been largely drained from the conversation now but the manner in which rookies have hit the ground running in such an environment remains astonishing.

They aren’t just surviving, they are thriving.

“Yeah, there is a lot of information there but we pare it down,” says Heaslip. “It’s the language we use, really, rather than the detail. Because in all the clubs now the attention to detail and knowing what you have to do...

“Joe probably set the standard a couple of years back at the club level — that would be my opinion — and then everyone came up to that level, whereas at international level other sides are coming up to that level as well.”

And, with so many Irish players expected to tour New Zealand with the Lions this summer, the door will swing even wider for those younger bucks in Schmidt’s sights as Ireland embark on their own trip to Japan.

It’s evolution but it’s being achieved by revolutionary means.

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