With the November internationals now done and dusted for most teams, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.
Given a tough schedule that included two matches against the record setting back to back world champions All Blacks, Canada and a hurting Australian side, few would have been surprised if Ireland returned with one victory for their efforts.
With three wins now under their belts, Ireland can look back on what has been a hugely productive November series with a great sense of satisfaction that they are now dining at the top table of world rugby.
Following their defeat at the hands of Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals just a season ago, Ireland were exposed for not having the depth within their squad of 31 players. It appears the quarter-final came a season too early for Irish rugby as the infrastructure put in place by head coach Joe Schmidt and performance director David Nucifora is now bearing results.
Such is the progress of this Irish team in just over twelve months, that even without key men Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O’Brien as well as suffering further key injuries during the match they managed to show enough confidence and courage to come from behind and beat an in-form Wallaby side.
It is a true reflection of the Irish squad depth that Ireland now has up to three viable option in every position on the field. Perhaps Ireland’s biggest area of concern prior to November was that of tighthead prop, but with the emergence of Tadgh Furlong as a potential Lions starter next year in New Zealand as well as Finlay Bealham, Ireland suddenly find themselves with an abundance of riches in a position that has been a concern for more than a decade.
At the heart of Ireland’s success was the emergence of Conor Murray as arguably the world’s premier scrum-half. Having comprehensively outplaying his New Zealand counterpart Aaron Smith in Chicago, Murray continued his fine run of form in the return fixture in Dublin and then again against the Wallabies. With his physical presence Murray dominates the breakdown area and is a constant threat with ball in hand around the fringes.
His box-kicking however is his strongest asset, with his kicking game releasing pressure off of Sexton and hanging the ball high enough for his chasers to contest. If Murray continues this form into the Six Nations there will be little discussion as to who the starting scrum-half will be for the Lions.
It is not however just in the playing departments that Ireland have made improvements – the addition of ex-England defensive guru Andy Farrell has been a masterstroke by the IRFU. Farrell has put in place a highly organised and effective defensive structure that sees Ireland’s wingers defending up in the line and closing from the outside in, with the wingers up in the line the scrum-half drifts back and assists the full-back with any kicks over the defensive line.
Whilst Ireland’s defence is without a doubt their strongest weapon, Schmidt has added another dimension to the Irish attack with players now more comfortable in offloading the ball during or just before contact and therefore creating an overlap.
Schmidt and Ireland will be disappointed with their loss to the All Blacks. It was always going to be a big ask to beat a team who had prior to their loss in Chicago won a record breaking eighteen test matches in a row in consecutive tests.
However, Ireland will take great comfort in having the weight of having never beaten the All Blacks off their backs. This victory and the win over the Wallabies was made all the more special as Ireland became the first northern hemisphere team since the Rugby World Cup-winning 2003 side to beat all three teams in a single calendar year.
With this great run of form and the Irish provinces in a good position in both the PRO12 and Champions Cup, the future is certainly bright for Irish Rugby as they build towards the 2017 Six Nations and beyond.