State of the Nation: Ireland continue to impress and deserve top spot in world rankings

David Skippers
Johnny Sexton and Ireland squad v South Africa ANS 2022 - PA.jpg

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland.

Under the guidance of head coach Andy Farrell, Ireland have made remarkable strides in 2022 and end their international campaign as the number one ranked team in World Rugby’s official rankings.

After finishing off their 2021 Autumn Nations Series, the men from the Emerald Isle were seen as one of the frontrunners ahead of the Six Nations and they did that title justice by winning the Triple Crown en route to a second-placed finish in the overall standings.

They were competitive throughout the championship and eventually notched four victories from their five matches, with their only defeat being a 30-24 reversal against eventual Grand Slam winners France in Paris in Round Two.

After that, they took on arguably the toughest assignment in the professional game – a tour to New Zealand, but despite losing the first Test to the All Blacks, they bounced back with consecutive triumphs to clinch a memorable 2-1 series win.

In the history of international rugby, few countries have managed to win a Test series in New Zealand and Farrell, his players and the rest of the coaching staff deserve credit for not resting on their laurels as they continued with their strong form during the Autumn Nations Series as they sealed victories over Fiji, South Africa and Australia.

Continuous improvement and building depth

Farrell is in his third year in charge of Ireland and after an underwhelming start in 2020 – in which there were numerous inconsistent performances and results – the team showed signs of improvement in 2021 and they’ve continued on that upward trajectory in 2022.

In 2021, Ireland finished the year with a record of eight out of 10 matches won while they notched nine victories from their 11 Tests played in 2022 and over that two-year period several young players have shown that they have what it takes to make the step up to international level. They did beat the All Blacks in last year’s end-of-year game in Dublin and showed that result was no fluke as they sealed those back-to-back triumphs against the same opposition in the series win in New Zealand.

The form of players like evergreen captain Johnny Sexton, Hugo Keenan, Jamison Gibson-Park, World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, Dan Sheehan, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong was crucial in Ireland’s rise to the top of the world rankings but what has also emerged is that Farrell has created an environment where the competition for places is tough and they have several top quality players waiting in reserve.

That tour to the land of the long white cloud also saw Ireland taking on the Maori All Blacks in a two-match series and the majority of the players used by Farrell were up-and-coming youngsters, although the side also contained experienced campaigners like Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour, Niall Scannell, Bundee Aki, Rob Herring and Stuart McCloskey.

However, it was inexperienced international players like Nick Timoney, Gavin Coombes, Cian Prendergast, Craig Casey, Ciaran Frawley and Jimmy O’Brien who put their hands up with impressive performances in the second match against the Maori All Blacks, which showed that Farrell has plenty of depth in his ranks.

O’Brien, Robert Baloucoune, Timoney, Mack Hansen, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Crowley, Finlay Bealham and Ross Byrne were also players who kicked on and did well during Ireland’s undefeated Autumn Nations Series campaign in November.

The way forward

There is no doubt that Ireland deserve their place at the top of the world rankings as they have shown that they can compete and beat the traditional heavyweights of the game, like the All Blacks and Springboks.

Farrell and Ireland’s attack coach Mike Catt deserve plenty of credit for their expansive style of play which has seen them starving their opponents of possession and territory for long periods before striking with quick recycled ball and brilliant variation on attack.

However, as excellent as that might be, the truth of the matter is that there is now a target on their backs and teams will be making plans to counter them and knock them off their pedestal.

That means Farrell and the rest of Ireland’s brains trust should not rest on their laurels and the big challenge for them in 2023 will be to continue with their team’s evolution.

They head into next year’s Six Nations in a confident mood and will be hoping to improve on their 2022 performance in that tournament by winning all their matches.

To do that, they will have to beat France – a team they have not beaten since Farrell took charge. France are currently on a 13-match winning streak and are expected to stretch that run to 14 matches in their Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome, before they come to Dublin to take on Ireland in a highly anticipated encounter which is likely to decide who wins the championship.

World Cup ambitions

The elephant in the room for Farrell and his backroom staff is the fact that Ireland have always under-performed at the World Cup as they are yet to win a knockout match in the history of the global event.

They have earned a reputation for peaking between World Cups and then imploding at the actual event. There are similarities between next year’s World Cup and the 2019 competition in Japan when Ireland went into the tournament as the world’s top ranked team before suffering a humiliating quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks.

However, Farrell and his charges will be hoping for much more than just moving on beyond the quarter-finals as he an outstanding squad of players at his disposal and the ultimate goal will be to lift the Webb Ellis trophy – a dream which is achievable as they have emerged as definite World Cup contenders.

READ MORE: State of the Nation: Argentina take step in right direction after three big scalps claimed in 2022