A Six Nations Grand Slam, Leinster winning the PRO14 and Champions Cup and now series joy in Australia; it has been some year for Ireland.
Everything appears rosy in Joe Schmidt’s camp as the players and coaches finally put their feet up for a well-earned break before 2018/19. In truth it couldn’t have gone better as they showed quality and guts in equal measure to wrap the season with a come-from-behind 2-1 win.
For years it’s been a huge obstacle coming away from the southern hemisphere in June on top, but such is the form Ireland are currently in that they bounced back from that Brisbane loss to claim victories in Melbourne and Sydney. This too against a Wallaby side in decent form.
Schmidt knew the tour could be a watershed moment for his charges and refused to over tinker with his squad, despite the first Test seeing Jonathan Sexton given a breather. Much like the England mid-year matches in 2003, are we now looking at the next step in a side’s journey?
They have the systems in place in their domestic game to flourish on the big stage in Japan next year, with many of their stalwarts having been well managed since their British & Irish Lions exploits. Put simply they are bearing the fruit of a structure that’s the envy of many.
The spine of the side has been together since RWC 2011 and in Conor Murray and Sexton they have serial winners who drive the team. Schmidt has crucially also refused to allow this squad to get stale with chances given to Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan and many more – they have repaid that faith in droves, with challengers, not back-ups, all pushing for selection to offer him a welcome headache as Japan approaches.
It’s not been a year without obstacles, however, as off-field issues at Ulster meant losing two players, Connacht’s form dropped off from their 2016 high while Munster had a coaching change. Ireland and Schmidt though pressed on while Leinster also dominated all before them, with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster mirroring the national side’s dominance as they swept up the spoils in a supreme double trophy haul.
There’s no doubt Leinster and Ireland have fed off each other’s success, which has left Ireland ranked second in the world and also second favourites, behind New Zealand, to lift the Rugby World Cup. In Pool A alongside Scotland, Japan, Russia and the play-off winner, if both the Irish and All Blacks finish top of their pool they would avoid each other until the final. That, however, is a long way down the road.
Much closer is November when it’s now Ireland’s clash with New Zealand, not England’s, that excites most in what will be another indicator of their progress as a team. While peaking at the right time is of course crucial when it comes to World Cups, landing psychological blows to their rivals are key stops along the way. In Australia that was done as the Irish showed they can win when the pressure is on, which it definitely was against a relentless Wallaby side. For that reason and more this golden generation looks like genuine Webb Ellis contenders.
by Adam Kyriacou