IN THE AFTERMATH of Ireland’s 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the key point Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff focused on was a lack of depth in their squad.
Shorn of five key players for that knock-out game, Ireland were overwhelmed in the opening quarter and never recovered.
Growing the depth within Ireland’s squad has been a central focus in the years since and ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations opener against France, there is a belief within the coaching group that they have made good progress with that goal.
The back row serves as a fine example.
Long-time frontliners Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien are missing through injury – the Carlow man hopes to make a comeback later in the championship – but there are still options aplenty for Schmidt and co. to choose from in the back row.
CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony look set to start, although there have been a host of other in-form players vying for the third back row spot.
“Across the board at the moment we are building depth in the back row,” says forwards coach Simon Easterby. “Sean has been incredibly good for Ireland for a number of years, Jamie as well, and yet you’ve got guys who have stood up in their provinces without Sean, without Jamie.
“Up step Jack Conan and Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy. It’s the mark of the Irish player that when someone drops out, we don’t see a massive reduction in the quality of the next guy coming in because they’ve been training with that team and they see it as an opportunity, and they can slot in seamlessly at times.
“It’s great to have these players available to us. It’s disappointing not to have the other guys but there’s not much in it now. If we had 10 back rows and all the guys were fit, there’s not much in it.
“It makes our job harder but it’s great because that competition is exactly what we want and the depth is growing, not just in that position but across the whole pack in particular.”
Indeed, the emergence of the likes of James Ryan and Andrew Porter has added to the depth in Ireland’s forward ranks, but the backline stocks also look healthy at present.
Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki were new caps in November, as well as Darren Sweetnam and Adam Byrne, while the in-form Jordan Larmour is hopeful of making his debut in the upcoming Six Nations.
Last summer’s tour to the US and Japan was also valuable in providing opportunities to bring eight previously uncapped players – including current Six Nations squad members Jacob Stockdale, Porter, Ryan and Rory Scannell.
“Probably that one disappointment of the  World Cup and what’s happened since then on a positive note is that we do have that depth through a number of positions,” says Easterby.
“I think that was always our goal – that we would work through these periods through to the next World Cup to try and build that depth through the squad.
“On the whole, the players that have come in are well motivated, there’s not many [in the current squad] that haven’t been in before; Jordan’s the only new cap at the moment.
“So, when you look at it across the board we’re building something that we maybe took for granted a little bit back in 2015 and it’s showing now in terms of what we had in the autumn.”
The fact that Munster’s 21-year-old centre Sam Arnold has been with the squad in the build-up to the Six Nations in order to gain experience points to the fact that Ireland are not losing sight of continuing to grow their depth.
Despite the strong competition for places in most areas of the pitch, Easterby and his fellow coaches are also thrilled to see each group of players within specific positions working hard together.
“That’s the quality of any side I think, that players will police each other, they’ll give each other tips and it’s great if you see guys working together,” says the former Ireland flanker.
“You might have a James Ryan working with an Iain Henderson and they’re joined up. Dev [Toner] will give his thoughts on things, especially for me at lineout time – it’s a complex area, there are lots of moving parts.
“But they’re in the thick of it, they do it week to week and it has a massive impact and you can see the players growing and evolving what we want to do as coaches.
“And if you get to that point then you know that you’ve got something pretty special because the players are driving it.”
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