State of the Nation: Ireland

Date published: March 29 2016

As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.

Joe Schmidt couldn’t deliver a hat-trick of Six Nations titles for his adopted country, but then the odds on that always felt a little long when considering the experienced heads Ireland were missing and the young blood coming in.

Luck has toyed with Ireland in their bid to replace key figures – fortunate enough to have Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne ready to replace that legendary D’Arcy-O’Driscoll combination last year, equally unfortunate that Iain Henderson’s hamstring tear left him unable to fill the void left by Paul O’Connell over the last two months.

CJ Stander’s arrival certainly falls into the first category. In a campaign that produced only two wins – including a one-point loss away to France – Stander was the standout positive.

Certain players make their Test debuts looking as though they already own 20 caps, and the Munster captain was one of them with his first-rate work on both sides of the ball.

Other new caps for Ireland included Josh van der Flier, Finley Bealham, Ultan Dillane and Stuart McCloskey, none of whom put a foot drastically wrong.

Dillane’s athleticism at 115kg holds great promise and McCloskey, the 108kg centre, offers Ireland size and power not dissimilar to Jamie Roberts but has a job on his hands to dislodge the preferred Henshaw-Payne combination.

Consider that for either all or some of the competition Ireland were without the¬†Kearneys, Zebo, Bowe, Payne, Fitzgerald, Earls, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Henderson, McCarthy, Healy and Ross. To come third off the back of that is a fair achievement.

Schmidt stressed the importance of Ireland finishing on a winning note and 13 tries in their final two matches added some much-needed positivity.

Ireland naturally want more and have the carrot of a first ever win in South Africa dangling in front of them, but there are big calls to be made ahead.

Andy Farrell’s arrival as defence coach comes at the right time – oddly on April 1 – to fine-tune Ireland’s shape and tighten things up.

The set-piece against the Springboks too has to improve. Ireland’s lineout suffered against England, when George Kruis excelled, and South Africa will fancy their chances in the scrum as ever on home soil.

Mike Ross remains Ireland’s best option at 36 but the door is open too for a long-term replacement.

Cracking the code for Ireland’s best back row is another challenge, with Sean O’Brien returning along with Peter O’Mahony to compete with Stander for those two spots at flanker.

Does Rory Best, 33, return as captain? No win from Ireland’s opening three games certainly upped the pressure but Best performed at his best against Scotland and has also voiced his interest in keeping the role long-term.

O’Mahony’s return from injury along with Henderson may see Schmidt make a long-term change with 2019 in mind.

Which indeed leads to the biggest question of all, will Schmidt by then still be in charge?

The former Leinster boss revealed in the aftermath of this year’s championship that he will made a decision on his future with by the time Ireland return from South Africa, with his contract set to expire in 2017.

A return home to New Zealand to replace Steve Hansen with the All Blacks remains a possibility but Ireland will need an answer sooner rather than later if that is the case in order for whoever replaces Schmidt to put down some roots two years out from Japan 2019.

Head coaching uncertainty is never welcome and Schmidt has done so much good for Leinster and Ireland since his arrival from Clermont in 2010 that he will depart as a hero, revered by players as much as supporters.

His influence on Irish rugby runs far deeper than perhaps many realise and he has raised standards along with expectations.

Ireland must dread the thought of Schmidt leaving whether next year or in 2019 but there is still plenty left to achieve, starting in South Africa this June.

Stealing at least one win from their tour, even after such a disrupted Six Nations campaign, is still very much on the cards, but will hinge on how those key players recovering from injury fare in the PRO12 and who hits form at the right time.

On balance, things for Ireland aren’t as bad as they seem.