Planet Rugby

State of the Nation: Ireland

05th December 2013 10:12

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ireland v new zealand conor murray

Positives in defeat: Ireland

As we do at the end of every year, we look at the state of affairs in each of the world's leading nations. Next up, Ireland!

Despite the agony of coming painfully close to beating New Zeland, all in all it was a positive month for Ireland as they began the Joe Schmidt era.

Victory over Samoa (40-9) was followed up by a hugely disappointing 32-15 defeat to Australia before they rocked the All Blacks to their very core, eventually losing on the last play of the game. While that result will have taken some time to get over, it sets them up nicely for the Six Nations.

They open the championship with back-to-back home games, versus Scotland and holders Wales, so two wins there would set them up for trips to England and France, either side of hosting Italy. Interestingly Schmidt's men are fourth favourites to lift the title, but that won't be a concern for them.

6/1 is surprising though in a competitive field as there's arguably four nations capable of prevailing in 2014. Ireland are definitely one of those. But, as the long-running question in Wales is 'why can't our regional sides perform like our Test team?', it's still the reverse in the Emerald Isle.

Stand-out players over November were Sean O'Brien and Conor Murray while Gordon D'Arcy enjoyed arguably his best match in green against New Zealand.

The aforementioned trio, along with Jonathan Sexton and Paul O'Connell, can lead them to trophies if the 23 turn in repeated efforts like last week. The big ask now from both coach and fans is whether Ireland can churn out that sort of performance on a weekly basis. If they can, they are a force.

Of course, they will be sweating over the fitness of both Tommy Bowe and Rory Best because of respective groin and arm injuries so as always, does strength in depth become an issue? Well, Dave Kearney and Sean Cronin have more than held their own during November so that should comfort Schmidt.

So too will his back-row, who were outstanding against the All Blacks. It wouldn't be unfair to say Jamie Heaslip got the better of recently crowned IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read while O'Brien bested Richie McCaw and Peter O'Mahony's rugged showings balanced the other two very nicely indeed.

Those three and the spine of Murray, Sexton and Rob Kearney is strong while Mike Ross and Cian Healy were excellent in their most recent outing so many signs are positive moving forward for Schmidt. Devin Toner has settled in alongside the evergreen Paul O'Connell very nicely indeed and Mike McCarthy is a quality man to have coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Luke Marshall and Jack McGrath laid decent platforms in their still young careers.

As we say, positives are there to improve and ultimately grasp that elusive consistency they have been missing in recent years. But in a Six Nations that could go in four directions, there is hope and lots of it. The nucleus of the side that looked was going well in the 2011 World Cup before that Welsh defeat remains and with Schmidt at the helm, don't be surprised if they enjoy a good year in 2014, a year when they will say goodbye to BOD.

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