They were simpler times. 

Paul Dean was the Ireland out-half for the opening two games of the Five Nations in 1986 but injury against Wales meant coach Mick Doyle needed a replacement. 

Two players, the uncapped Ralph Keyes, 24, and Tony Ward, holder of 17 caps, then 32, were in the mix.

And it was a stand-out performance for Cork Con prior to the trip to Twickenham, a 25-20 loss, that earned Keyes his first cap. 

"Everyone played with their clubs and you graduated to the inter-pro side," Keyes tells RTÉ Sport.

"Thereafter you played in the domestic inter-pro competition and the Irish trial, which could have been the biggest game in many years because you could have one or two good inter-pro matches or a poor one but if you had a good Irish trial you could get in.

"If you had a good club game, Cork Con might play Wanderers or Lansdowne in Lansdowne Road. They became almost the extra inter-pro or extra Irish trial in many respects. 

"That was the pathway." Pretty straightforward.

"I was in the Munster squad around the age of 20," says Keyes of his graduation to the senior ranks.

"Tony Ward would have been ahead of me. 

"I was playing first lieutenant to him for a year or two. There was a change in the Ireland coaching set-up with Mick Doyle and they looked for a new way of doing things.

"I got a breakthrough that way, that's how I got through to the Irish set-up." 

Ralph Keyes was the top scorer at the 1991 World Cup

The Cork man then dropped out of the reckoning with Australian Brian Smith winning nine caps ahead of the 1991 World Cup before shooting off Down Under to take up a rugby league contract, much to the bemusement of many in Irish rugby. 

But that opened the door for Keyes, who went on to become the top points scorer at that tournament, and was part of the team that were seconds from a famous quarter-final win over the Aussies before a late Michael Lynagh try.

"We were all different ages," he says of those who were in the mix for the 10 jersey back then.

"With the academies now you have all the same ages, more or less which is evident in Leinster and Munster in particular, with the calls for different fellas to be included, and they are all 'ready’ and all the rest of it.

"In my day there were a couple of us competing with Wardy in Munster. Ollie Campbell was at Leinster, Darragh Coakley in Blackrock College.

"Nowadays there are so many players and you don’t know how good they really are because there aren’t enough games to go off." 

That’s a line that chimes with what Ireland head coach Andy Farrell told reporters on Thursday addressing calls for new blood to face Italy next week.

"You can’t throw any kid in by just guessing," said the 45-year-old. 

While rugby has changed masively since Keyes’ days, that gulf between province and Test levels remains.

"It was massive," Keyes says of the step up in class.

"First of all, the jump from club to inter-pro was big enough; then to international rugby, Test level, was another step up again." 

Farrell, who took over from Joe Schmidt after the RWC in 2019, is facing the prospect of a fourth championship defeat in a row should Italy, on a 29-game losing streak, break that run.

It’s a game he can’t afford to lose and with that in mind is likely to revert to the tried and trusted Johnny Sexton.

With Ross and Harry Byrne both released back to Leinster for last night’s win against Dragons, it was Sexton (96 Ireland caps) and Billy Burns (5) who remained in national camp.

Former Ireland captains Brian O’Driscoll and Donal Lenihan are among those pushing for Harry Byrne to be exposed to international rugby now.

"I'd put Harry Byrne on the bench against Italy in Rome in two weeks' time. Give him 20-25 minutes at that level," said Lenihan on the RTÉ Rugby podcast.

"If you are good enough you are old enough," says Keyes.

"However, the problem is many of them don’t have the outlet to get the game time to show that they are good enough consistently.

Ross Byrne (l) is 25 and has 12 Ireland caps

"In Covid times, the academies are a write-off, as are the A teams, there are no summer tours, they were a great way of introducing players.

"The consequence of that is when the provinces are playing the Pro14, a gateway to the Heineken Champions Cup, they are almost having to play their front-liners to get game time for the international challenges that are coming.

"The door is slightly closed of these guys. It’s hard for them." 

Another Cork Con man, former Munster out-half Jonny Holland, concurs.

"We’re expecting 21-year-old Harry Byrne, a third choice Leinster 10, to do the business at international level and his brother Ross is still only second choice at his province. It’s difficult," says the RTÉ Sport columnist.

"They don’t have enough game time and haven’t managed enough games." 

Ireland have been blessed, says Keyes, over the last 20 years to have had Ronan O’Gara and then Sexton, as world-class operators.

Succession plans haven’t gone smoothly since.

Firstly, Paddy Jackson, who last played for Ireland in 2017 before losing his IRFU contract after being acquitted in the Belfast trial, and then Joey Carbery were meant to be the natural successors to Sexton, who turns 36 in July.

Carbery, 25, is back on the Munster training pitch following an ankle injury that has kept him out for 13 months.

The former Leinster man, who has 22 Ireland caps, would come straight back into contention when he proves his fitness and provide a major fillip for Farrell.

The continued omission of Connacht’s in-form Jack Carty, who was worth a World Cup start less than two years ago, has many puzzled, too. 

Behind him at the Western province, Conor Fitzgerald has made an impression, starting 13 times in the last two seasons. 

Ian Madigan signed for Ulster with a view to reviving his international career but the 31-year-old hasn’t usurped Burns at the province. 

While it’s promising that so many youngsters are being named as potential internationals, the fact that IRFU policy dictates that they will only consider home-based players means there are going to be logjams until they revise their outlook.  

The make-up of the French and English leagues exposes multiple out-halves to regular frontline action. Not so in Ireland.  

Down in Munster, JJ Hanrahan is top dog in Carbery's absence with a couple of whippersnappers biting at his heels. 

"If Harry Byrne, Jack Crowley, Jake Flannery, Ben Healy all end up competing with Carty and Ross Byrne then, post Covid, if they are not in well with the club then there’s going to be calls for one or two of them to go to France," says Keyes. 

Ben Healy is among a number of out-halves at Munster

"Ronan O’Gara, at La Rochelle, already tried to sign Jack Crowley. 

"You might see one or two going.

"I think the IRFU will probably have to relook at their policy. You don’t want to lose these types of players because of some rule, especially when it didn’t apply to Johnny Sexton when he went to Racing." 

On next Saturday’s clash against the Azzurri, Keyes understands the boss’s conundrum.

"Farrell has to consider preservation, too," he says.

"I don’t think Italy getting a lucky drop goal to win it or something like that would benefit him so I think he’ll go as strong as he can.

"I can imagine Sexton and Conor Murray starting, he may well have Casey and someone on the bench, Ross or Harry Byrne.

"Carty gave an exhibition against Leinster and has been left out in the cold and probably been the best player since the autumn series." 

There are simply too many players for too few positions. Something has got to give.

Abandoning the overseas policy, loaning out players to France or England with quick call-back options, a hook-up with London Irish are just three options that have been mooted. 

The good news is the IRFU is an organisation that loves to 'control the controllables'. And this is in their hands. 

Follow Italy v Ireland (kick-off 2.15pm, Saturday, 27 February) via our live blog on and the RTÉ News app or listen live on RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport. Highlights on Against the Head on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.

Listen to the RTÉ Rugby podcast on Apple PodcastsSoundcloudSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts