FORMER Munster and Ireland hooker Frankie Sheahan believes there is a culture of picking players on reputation rather than talent amongst the Irish provinces, and has argued that youth must be given its head.
With the arrival of the Italians into the Magners League and a World Cup to take into account in 2011, young Irish players are likely to enjoy significant game time this season but Sheahan believes the process needs speeding up.
“It is a huge chance and the provinces have to start picking these guys as well,” Sheahan said. “A lot of guys have been picked on the basis of previous performances and experience and it is coming to the stage in Irish rugby where, while you have to take all that into consideration, it can’t be the be all and end all.
“If there is somebody else coming up behind and playing 50-60% better than the other person that is there in front of them then the coaches are going to have to start picking them. That is the only way we are going to start developing Irish rugby.”
With only a limited amount of Irish internationals made available for the opening round of the Magners League, the four provincial coaches will have no choice but to dig deeper into their lockers for this weekend’s season openers.
Leinster travel to Glasgow tonight while Ulster take on the champion Ospreys at Ravenhill before Connacht and Munster open their accounts with home ties against the Dragons and Aironi Rugby tomorrow.
It remains to be seen if the Irish provinces can rediscover the heights of the 2008/09 season when their successes were matched by a national team which claimed a long-cherished Grand Slam.
Cardiff coach, Dai Young, wouldn’t appear to think they will judging by his recent comments when he claimed that the Irish sides’ sense of aura had been shattered by their lack of silverware last season.
“You evolve and you improve and you look to do things a bit better,” said Sheahan. “The Welsh coming out with those comments – there were still two Irish provinces in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup last year.
“Okay, they came up short and the scrummaging was disappointing but an Irish side came up narrowly short of the (Magners League) final against the Ospreys. By Irish standards, it’s a great sign that people are saying that was disappointing.
“A few years ago we would be celebrating and jumping through hoops. This year is about winning as much as possible but it is also about peaking at World Cup time which we haven’t done the previous times.
“Okay we have won Grand Slams, Heineken Cups and Magners Leagues but we haven’t performed at a World Cup, let alone won one, and it is one area the current players and management would like to address.”
That is all some way off in the distance for now. As is the Heineken Cup. The focus in recent weeks has been on the Magners and all four provinces have done considerable prep work against English opposition.
Munster’s preseason bouts have been the most encouraging, followed in descending order by Ulster, Connacht and, lastly, Leinster who suffered heavy defeats against Leicester and Wasps.
More importantly for Munster, as far as Sheahan is concerned, has been the re-signing of South African prop Wian Du Preez after his loan spell last year and the return to fitness of Denis Leamy.
“Wian Du Preez in Munster has been a very clever signing. The last game that Munster did really well in was Perpignan away and Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy were playing that day.
“Du Preez was there too. Those players added that fire and brimstone and they will be back in the mix this year and I will be interested to see what he is like again this season.”
Elsewhere, the mushrooming South African contingent in Ravenhill has raised expectations in Belfast while both Connacht (Eric Elwood) and Leinster (Joe Schmidt) will be under new management.
The Kiwi’s first two games in charge ended in 23 and 35-point defeats against Leicester and Wasps but it never pays to wager on the basis of games played in August’s false dawn.
“You would prefer to lose those other two and win the first league game,” said Sheahan. “The Magners League is about momentum and if you can win one or two early on you get into a good stride. I wouldn’t read a huge amount into it.
“Leicester looked particularly strong against Munster in Musgrave Park. It didn’t surprise me to see them win like that. They will be hard to beat in the UK this year. Leinster do have a lot of young guys coming through as well and they still have all their main men to come back.”
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