By David Blair
THE AUTUMN Internationals are weeks away, with the Irish tasked to banish all memories of that humiliating 60-0 whitewash in Hamilton.
If you cast your mind back, Ireland had very nearly accomplished the seemingly impossible task of beating the All Blacks one week prior to the final test whitewash. Instead, not only did a first Irish victory over the All Blacks remain elusive, but an agonising five-month wait would follow before the squad had their first opportunity to right the wrongs of their performance in Waikato. That wait is almost over.
South Africa and Argentina will provide two stern tests for the Irish as they bid to overcome their summer blues. Meanwhile a presumably second string Irish XV will face Fiji at Thomond Park. Opening the series against the Springboks is hardly ideal with pressure mounting on the management but there is hope amongst the doom and gloom.
The experience gained by individuals previously badges as fringe players will add to the pool of talent from which Declan Kidney will select his XV. There is healthy competition around the squad to suggest the future looks less daunting than in previous years. And no, I’ve never said Leo Cullen could be considered fresh faced!
There are options to explore all over the park, but scrum-half is intriguing. Conor Murray is currently in possession of the shirt, with Eoin Reddan the bench option, but they are by no means nailed on to be in the match 22. Challengers are lining up to be thrown into the mix. Paul Marshall had an outstanding opening weekend in the Heineken Cup, scoring twice in a man-of-the-match performance as Ulster left it late to complete a four try bonus point win over Castres Olympique.
Far more than an understudy to Ruan Pienaar at Ulster, Marshall has developed a game which should eventually force the hand of Declan Kidney, and not before time. ‘Small Paul’ is one of the quickest half-backs in the RaboDirect Pro12 and a constant threat around the fringes. Marshall also possesses an inch perfect box kick in his armoury.
A surprise contender for a return to the Ireland setup is Tomas O’Leary. Currently plying his trade at London Irish, O’Leary has formed the beginnings of an unlikely half-back partnership with exiled Ulsterman Ian Humphreys.
Previously, it seemed that O’Leary’s Irish hopes were in a Felix Baumgartner style freefall and off the Kidney radar before his move to the English capital. But solid form and a positive attitude could see the former Grand Slam winner forcing his way back into contention.
As for Eoin Reddan, he will simply be relieved that Leinster avoided a shock opening round Heineken defeat to the Exeter Chiefs. It just didn’t click for the three times champions of Europe. How much of that blame can be laid upon Reddan is debatable but that form certainly wouldn’t make him a front runner for the national team if it were to continue. Isaac Boss’ return to fitness should keep Reddan on his toes in D4.
At 23, Conor Murray is the youngest option available to Kidney. His promotion to the international game was remarkably quick, perhaps with the selectors hoping and willing the Munster nine to take ownership of the green jersey for the future. A crucial error which cost Munster a win in France in the first weekend is a solitary stain on what has been a steady start to his season.
Murray will, in all likelihood, get the nod on Nov 10 as Kidney is known for his loyalty. But the onus is on him to keep improving and give Warren Gatland something to think about when it comes to selecting his Lions tourists. He’s not there yet, but Murray has bags of potential.