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14th Nov 2016

WATCH: It’s depth that beats the All Blacks and all of a sudden Ireland have loads of it

23 men for a 23-man game

Mikey Stafford

We would not quite place him on the same level of acceptance as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but Sean Cronin is well used to his ‘super sub’ tag at this stage.

Saturday’s win over Canada was only the hooker’s ninth start for Ireland – out of 54 appearances. It doesn’t help when a man in your position is named as Paul O’Connell’s successor as international captain.

Rory Best has been known to play on with a broken arm, for christ’s sake.

Thirty-year-old Cronin’s 45th appearance from the bench came in Soldier Field, when he replaced Best for the final 10 minutes.

The Leinster man entered the fray with just four points between the teams. Within five minutes he was hooking for the attacking scrum from which Robbie Henshaw scored the match-winning try.

This replacement business is all glory, isn’t it?

Not quite, as it was not so long ago that emptying the bench was a massive gamble for Ireland. Think back to the All Blacks last visit to Dublin.

Cronin was on in the first half of that game in 2013, once Best finally admitted that facing the world champions with a broken arm was not a great idea.

Brian O'Driscoll's International Career in 100 Pictures 3/3/2014 Guinness Series 24/11/2013  Ireland vs New Zealand All Blacks Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll watches as All Blacks' score a try through Ryan Crotty in the last minute Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ireland were 22-10 to the good when a stunned Brian O’Driscoll was replaced by Luke Fitzgerald in the 53rd minute. Kevin McLaughlin was next on three minutes later.

A BJ Franks try brought the visitors within five before Mike McCarthy and Declan Fitzpatrick, Jack McGrath and Ian Madigan entered the fray.

As we all know, Ryan Crotty’s last-gasp try and Aaron Cruden’s retaken conversion denied Ireland that long-awaited win over New Zealand, which finally arrived in Chicago earlier this month.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s rematch at the Aviva Stadium, Cronin identified the role of the bench as key to the 40-29 win in Soldier Field.

It was not only pessimism that had people fearing the worst when New Zealand got in for their two second half tries, but knowledge that the All Blacks, all through the Rugby Championship, had been doing damage in the second half of games.

Sean Cronin knows the importance of the bench against the #allblacks #rugby #ireland?

A video posted by (@sportsjoedotie) on

“It is a massive area, you can see it looking back through games they have played – it is the 50-60 minute mark where they really put the pressure on teams and get points on the board,” said Cronin.

“It is a big area where we learned lessons from 2013 when we lost to narrowly. That was a big area where the bench needed to offer a bit more that day and it has been a big focus for the last few years, you fit in first and you make your impact through contributing to the team.

“That is an area I have found myself in, you try and fit in first and have a positive impact and try and close out the game. Hopefully that will be the same at the weekend.”

Despite a solid showing against Canada, Cronin knows he will not dislodge Best from the team, but he and all the squad members have to keep an eye on what is coming behind them too.

The strength of Connacht and success of all the provinces’ academies is currently bearing fruit as the international ranks are well stocked with new and emerging talent.

The eight who made their debuts against Canada, plus the returning Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Iain Henderson, are making sure that head coach Joe Schmidt has an embarrassment of riches to select his 23 from this week.

It was not always the way.

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