This season's rugby prospects
IN TERMS OF achievement, Ireland's recent Rugby history has been none too happy insofar as victory in the Triple Crown series has eluded the Irish since the balmy days of 1948 and 1949. However, in terms of performances, the Irish have done considerably better in recent years than ever before: six consecutive internationals were won and no other Irish side had managed to build such an impressively consistent record.
Nonetheless, the distinction between " achievement" and" performance" should be noted. I have no doubt that players and supporters would gladly exchange the six-in-a-row sequence for the important three-in-a-row which would have brought the Triple Crown back to Ireland. But each new season brings new hope and the 1969-70 season, which has just opened, could prove to be the most successful Ireland has enjoyed for over 20 years in terms of achievement and performance.
Undoubtedly, there- is enough talent available in the country to build a winning team and there are hopeful signs that among the younger players a deep pool ?f res~rve talent is. filling up.The Insh wIll never be In theposition of having too wide a choice but when a crop of good playersemerges the lack of strength-in-depthworks to Ireland's advantage. The players are kept together and a valuable unity of purpose of spirit can evolve. In other countries, where the choice is much wider, it is considerably more difficult to keep much the same team intact. The temptation to chop and change, seeking continual improvement, tends to upset team balance but with so much worthwhile talent at their disposal the selectors in the other countries cannot but help experimenting. It may be true that they will seldom come up with a bad team but, while the Irish can have their lean years they can also produce brilliant combinations.
It may be presumptuous at such an early stage of a new season to attempt to forecast Ireland's fortunes, particularly when no one is aware of what the opposition may produce, but I expect that Ireland will do extremely well and I feel that the Triple Crown and the International Championship can be won by the Irish.
Apart from the general state of Irish Rugby, which is healthy, one has only to scan through the key positions to see that there is a sufficient number of established players available to ensure that the pattern of the last few seasons is maintained. The team-spirit which has been generated in those years and the wealth of reserve talent which has developed should make for improvement.And it is Tom Kiernan could pass Jack Kyle's record number of Irish caps. possible that in the Interprovincial Championship, which will dominate the pre-Christmas activity, some new candidates for places on the National team will emerge.
Kiernan to pass Kyle?
At present, we can only deal with players we know who are likely to figure in Ireland's team but still the signs are encouraging. At full-back, Tommy Kiernan is the man in possession and if he plays in the five matches against South Africa, France, England, Scotland and Wales he will become Ireland's most-capped player, passing the record number of caps of 46 held by the great Jack Kyle. This should be incentive enough for Kiernan to make a determined bid to hold his place; for it would be a suitable climax to a career, which has already seen him captain the British and Irish Lions. Just to ice the cake for Kiernan, he would appreciate the honour even more if he were to get his 47th cap in a Triple Crown victory over Wales at Lansdowne Road !'
However, if Kiernan does get his five more caps they will be earned on merit because he will have-to prove, first of all, that he is a more accomplished full-back than Barry O'Driscoll, one of the foremost challengers for the position. In addition the young Dublin University player, McKibben, has a great deal of promise and a good season in the interprovinciaIs could bring him into the reckoning.
There were some doubts expressed about the ability of the Irish threequarter line, following the dismal per- c, formance:at Cardiff,..but-lfeel that with Gibson and Br~sD.ihan in - the. centre the foundations are there for a good line. Harry Rea and John Moroney could also be useful utility men and there are a number of very promising wingers who might be among those considered - Alan Duggan, Jim Tydings, Tom Grace (U.C.D), and Terry Young (St. Mary's), to name I but four.
The manner in which Barry McGann took over the out-half role last season indicates that he will remain for some time but with Gibson able to switch from the centre there is no real cause for concern here and the position with regard to the serum-half berth is equally encouraging. Roger Young could be very seriously challenged by Brendan Sherry, now back to peak fitness, and Munster's Liam Hall may also come into contention; while Colin Grimshaw, John Moloney and Vinnie Becker will be other candidates of real potential.
Man in the scrum
But the best backs in the world can be of little value if they do not get the ball and therefore it is essential for a team with lofty ambitions to have a good set of forwards. Happily, Ireland appear to be reasonably served up front although, in some cases, there is reason to worry about the shortage of reserves of class. For example, Ken Kennedy is expected to remain as hooker but apart from Paddy Madigan there does not seem to be many promis;. ing hookers in a position to take over. However, we must assume and hope that Kennedy will be available throughout the campaign and if so Ireland can be assured of regular possession from the set scrums.
There are plenty of fine prop forwards in the picture but it will be interesting to see whether Syd Millar and Phil O'Callaghan can hold out Ray McLoughlin, the former Irish captain, who is likely to makc a bid to regain his place. Ollie Waldron is another who could get back into favour and the impressive captain of last season's Leinster Cup winners, Sean Lynch (St. Mary's) might also come into the reckoning.
In the second row Bill McBride and Mick Molloy look certain to remain but it is rather disconcerting that there are so few players pressing these two for their places. Indeed, if either of the two men in possession lose form, Ireland will have difficulty in finding a suitable replacement.
Strength in the line-out
However, Bill McBride, who has had to plough such a lone furrow in the line-out for Ireland may have some Bill McBride- seems certain
to remain of the burden lifted from his shoulders. The arrival of Ken Goodall did much to ease McBride's responsibility, for the tall Goodall proved himself to be just as effective in winning posession at the tail of the line-out as he was in general play. He must surely become one of the greatest No.8 forwards the game has known and I believe that Ireland can build a truly great back row around him this season.Mick Hipwell could well move to wing forward and this would add even more strength to Ireland's line-out play and there are a host of good wingforwards from which the selectors can choose.
It is possible that the mighty Noel Murphy will be prevailed upon to rescind his decision to retire from international football and he could join men like Jim Davidson, Tommy Doyle, Mick Doyle, Denis Hickie, Terry Moore and others in a tussle for a place in the back row. \Vhatever way the selectors move, however, it will be difficult for them not to settle for a very formidable set of forwards and with a pack of such potential, the backs should get plenty of possession to achieve those championship and Triple Crown victories which have eluded Ireland for so long.
Towards the Crown
The famous and powerful South African touring team, who play Ulster in Ravenhill on November 29, will return to Ireland in the New Year and having played Munster in Limerick on January 3, they will open Ireland's International campaign at Lansdowne Road on January 10. Ireland will then travel to Paris to meet France on January 24 and on February 14 Ireland will play England at Twickenham. Scotland will visit Lansdowne Road for their match with Ireland on February 28 and the climax of the season will be reached on March 14 when the Irish take on Wales at Lansdowne Road. On the off-chance that this will be a Triple Crown game, might I suggest that now is the time to book your ticket