State of the Nation: Ireland

Date published: June 29 2016

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With the June internationals now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.

Ireland came into the three-match tour of South Africa as underdogs even with the Springboks under a new coach in Allister Coetzee, because of the colossal injury list which led to their hopes being written off before their plane even landed.

But after winning the first Test, a first-ever win for Ireland in South Africa, Joe Schmidt's men were just one more win away from securing a first-ever series win over the two-time world champions on South African soil.

It's a reflection of the depth of Irish rugby that despite there being no Kearneys or Jonathan Sexton or Sean O'Brien or Peter O'Mahony the well of players is in a healthy state, partly down to the success of the PRO12 topped off by Connacht defeating Leinster in the final.

Schmidt included no less than seven Connacht players, with three of them – Matt Healy, Quinn Roux and Tiernan O'Halloran – making their Test debut on the tour.

History tells you that having to do without 187 Test caps when heading to the Southern Hemisphere is going to be a problem, and the biggest abscence was that of Sexton.

However this paved the way for Paddy Jackson to take his chance, who prior to the South African tour had only made five starts for Ireland in his 13 Test appearances. Jackson headed to South Africa in top form with Ulster but really unknown internationally. Truth be told he came of age in that opening Test, putting the interception pass to Pieter-Steph du Toit to one side, with his game management and goal-kicking both superb.

What made that victory even more remarkable was it came after being reduced to 14 men for more than an hour when CJ Stander was red carded. In adversity those Irish players revealed plenty about their character.

The high altitude, as predicted, however affected the fitness of the tourists a week on to wittle away their 16-point lead at Ellis Park.

Managing that disappointment isn't easy but consider the position Ireland were in coming into this series with their overloaded sick bay and where they finished – battering away at the Springboks' five-metre line with the series still up for grabs – and the last month really has been a triumph.

Jack McGrath's progress at loosehead, thriving in the second Test, puts him firmly in the British and Irish Lions sights for next year. Luke Marshall and Jordi Murphy put their hands up when called upon. Devin Toner and Conor Murray, veterans both, were supreme.

Despite all those positives and the optimism following the return of all those key injured players to full fitness ahead of November, a cloud is still hanging over Ireland given the future of Schmidt as head coach remains unclear.

As much as that historical first Test win in Cape Town was about Irish players digging deep into their reserves of determination, it also wouldn't have happened without Schmidt's tactical approach. He has won two Six Nations titles in three years with Ireland but the offer to return to his native New Zealand to coach the Highlanders in 2018 is on the table, with a shot at the All Blacks job after the next Rugby World Cup.

There's more to it though than just a job opportunity, with Schmidt's family and the health of his son Luke the major factor in his decision to either move on when his contract with the IRFU expires in 2017 or whether to commit beyond the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

A decision is expected in the coming weeks once Schmidt returns from holiday, meaning Ireland will know where they stand well ahead of four Tests this November against New Zealand (twice, once in the USA), Canada and Australia.

The excellent work of the Irish U20 side, beaten in the end but conquerors of New Zealand on their route to the final, should get Irish supporters excited as a young crop began to push through, not forgetting that Max Deegan, the impressive number eight, was voted U20 Player of the Tournament.

Should Schmidt decide the time is right to return home then his replacement will have plenty of talent to work with. But you sense Ireland's best chances of success in the near future are with Schmidt at the helm, providing they suffer less injuries, after so much good work with first Leinster and now the national side. 

Whatever happens, Ireland have returned home with a piece of history in their pocket from that Cape Town win and having proved that the depth of the squad is a lot stronger than many may realise.

Read the rest of our State of the Nation pieces following the June Tests right here.

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