Irish rugby might be at a crossroads regarding the national team and what direction it's going to go in the next two years of the World Cup cycle under Andy Farrell, yet systemically it is thriving beyond the standards of the other countries represented in the Guinness Pro 14.
Farrell hasn’t had an easy start to his tenure after being thrust into a pandemic during his first season in charge.
One would imagine that more experienced coaches such as Joe Schmidt might have been better equipped for a disaster like this, but such is life and Farrell will more than likely come through this as a much better head man.
It’s an added difficulty on top of the already monstrous challenge of replacing Schmidt and creating the behaviour and mood inside the camp that players seem to be relishing, although it hasn’t shone through on the pitch thus far.
However, when you look at Ireland’s provinces and how they are performing week in, week out, you can’t but give credit to the system as a whole.
There have been turbulent times recently with contractual worries heading into the Six Nations.
The guys who were disappointed to be left at their clubs had the added challenge of trying to negotiate a favourable contract while not being selected internationally, and possibly being out of pocket financially considering the reduced revenue streams for the union.
In saying that, the provinces went four from four across the weekend and are dominating the standings in the league. Conference A will finish with an Irish leader and conference B is almost confirmed as well.
It’s a credit to the quality throughout the provinces when the internationals are away.
It may also be a reflection on how poor the Welsh and Scottish teams are at the moment, with no serious depth left once their internationals are on duty.
Although Wales are beginning to move in the right direction again with players returning home for centralised contracts.
If you look around the Irish teams at the moment there is an embarrassment of riches. Alex Wootton was on the scoreboard twice more at the weekend for Connacht and is showing that a change of scenery may suit more players that have been frustrated by the logjam in certain positions.
He is the top try scorer in the competition and is yet to be spoken about at the higher levels.
Jack Carty has no doubt helped the team to create the opportunities that Wootton has been finishing off and is one of the most unfortunate players in the Irish system at the moment, although there are quite a few of those too.
Leinster boast the other challengers for the out-half position, despite the hype surrounding Harry Byrne taking a hit at the weekend.
We all know the quality that Leinster have and continue to produce. Ronan Kelleher has just secured his spot in the Ireland squad and now Dan Sheehan has come along intending on upsetting his standings in the pecking order.
The real head scratcher is John Cooney. He can’t get closer to Andy Farrell’s good books at the moment despite topping the charts for try assists and being the most off-the-cuff scrum-half in Ireland for the last couple of years, aside from his barren spell for a couple of matches upon the resumption of action after the first lockdown.
Add to that, there’s the already capped Kieran Marmion in Connacht who has to battle with Caolin Blade for the nine jersey. There’s no shortage of scrum-halves in the country.
Munster have recently begun to turn the tide in terms of youth development and you now have a couple of guys queuing up to put the internationals under pressure for their position at home, never mind the bigger picture of the national side.
Craig Casey and Gavin Coombes are the most likely guys to pick up a green shirt next and it almost feels like 'when’ as opposed to ‘if’. Coombes is another one high up the try scorers leaderboard in the Pro14. His destructive ball carrying has turned some heads this season.
That’s without mentioning the imminent return of Joey Carbery, still only 25, and the real heir to the Johnny Sexton throne.
Once Carbery can return to action in the next few weeks and stay fit in the next couple of months, he’ll resume his position as the real threat to Sexton’s international standings.
There's certainly no shortage of half-back potential around this small island, however, potential is no good to Andy Farrell until someone can create a closer competition with his captain.
The system that the IRFU have created is thriving at domestic level and will certainly welcome the challenge of facing South African teams in the next few months.
It was spoken about last year when Leinster went without any major challenge in the league and fell at the hands of the controversial European giants, Saracens.
A quote that was passed on to me is pertinent in this situation, "we don’t rise to the level of the expectation, we fall to the level of our training" and Leinster’s training in the Pro 14 hadn’t been challenging enough.
Now, you feel they are being challenged by their provincial rivals which should put the international team in a better place.
What’s the disconnect with the national side?
Is it still the transition of thought process and management within the group? It’s been pointed out that Ireland are creating a lot of chances with space on the width but they haven’t been recognising that or executing the passes in the wider channels when these players are in a green shirt.
Quite often, it is something that they would easily perform in a domestic game.
Maybe the national team needs to start rewarding domestic form but there’s a fine line between playing well in the league and stepping up to international honours.
It can’t be understated how big that increase in intensity is, but some players are showing enough potential on current viewing.
I was reminded recently about South Africa’s loss to Ireland in November 2017 - 38-3 was the score line in Dublin that day, yet it was the Rassie Erasmus revolution that transformed the under-performing South Africans into world champions while we stumbled backwards and exited the tournament early.
Ireland isn’t a country with the same systemic issues but it shows that we can build in the next two years to stake a claim at the next World Cup.
Not to be delusional about it, that is only if there’s progression and the right playing systems are developed along the way to transform the current under-performers into at least a top four side.
We have the player pool, it’s about using it right and developing a team that can compete on the highest stage.
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