It’s imperative the Irish rugby snowball keeps on rolling in 2017 after such a productive end to 2016, writes Donal Lenihan.
The latter half of 2016 proved to be one of the most productive, rewarding and promising in Irish rugby history, coming as it did after the disappointment of the 2015 World Cup and a mid-table finish to the 2016 Six Nations championship.
This Irish squad has turned a significant corner and 2017 is all about building on the incremental gains from the defeats of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia over a magical six-month period. Key events over the next 12 months are set to play a significant role towards achieving greatness in Japan in 2019. It’s imperative the Irish rugby snowball keeps on rolling in 2017.
First, the low point....
October 18, 2015: Ireland 20 Argentina 43
Having dispatched the French with consummate ease to top our pool for the second successive time at a World Cup, Ireland’s time had come and that elusive World Cup semi-final slot beckoned. Circumstances dictated differently, however, with injuries to key players derailing Ireland’s quest for World Cup history. All Joe Schmidt’s work over the previous three years counted for nothing on the biggest stage as Argentina blew us off the Millennium Stadium park.
November 5, 2016: Ireland 40 New Zealand 29
History made. The last remaining blot on Irish rugby is finally put to bed with a victory over the mighty All Blacks. While no cups or medals were distributed as a consequence of that superb win, the tangible benefits should be seen over the next few seasons as Ireland build towards rectifying that other major failing that has haunted us since the inaugural World Cup in 1987 — failure to make the semi-final stage in any of the eight tournaments to date.
That win in Chicago could well prove the catalyst towards finally putting that to bed. Irish rugby is in a good place and about to get even better. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, for the first time ever, I see Ireland as a genuine contender to win a World Cup. To sustain the level of progress required to enable that to happen, key events over the next 12 months will prove crucial in maintaining that momentum.
2017 is moving year
The concept of moving day is one well known to all followers of golf. Day three of a tournament is crucial if you want to make the winner’s enclosure on Sunday evening. Next year could prove the equivalent in rugby terms for Joe Schmidt’s men if they harbour genuine aspirations of contesting the World Cup final in Tokyo in 2019.
For Ireland to succeed on the international stage, a minimum of two of its provinces must be competing for silverware. Our only Grand Slam of the professional era — the second in our long rugby history — was delivered in a period when Munster and Leinster captured three Heineken Cups in four years.
Success breeds success. Unlike France, where Toulon only ever fielded a maximum of three French players in the teams that captured a hat-trick of European successes, the Irish provincial sides are driven by players who, in the main, are Irish qualified.
The vast resources available to the clubs in France and England, due primarily to a mix of better television revenue from their domestic leagues supplemented further by the deep pockets of some high profile benefactors, gave them an appreciable edge in recent times.
That said, when I look around the European landscape at present, I only see a small pocket of clubs with squads superior to what we are building in Ireland. Saracens stand alone and look odds-on to reach a third Champions Cup final in a row and to retain the crown they lifted for the first time last season. Behind them, Wasps are the only other Aviva Premiership side who look capable of achieving European glory and Connacht issued them with a reality check last week. Beyond them, I would back any of our provinces to prevail against the remaining 10 sides in the Premiership.
Now that Mourad Boudjellal appears to be getting slightly bored with events in Toulon, the former European champions have begun to slip and his collection of quality individuals have failed to gel as a team. There also appears to be a severe lack of coaching and direction at the Stade Felix Mayol at present.
Current French champions Racing 92 are having a very poor season and their back-to-back defeats to Glasgow has done untold damage. The only other French contenders Clermont Auvergne are as volatile as ever, unbeatable one day, vulnerable the next. Their biggest opponents continue to be themselves as they battle with the mental demons that have seen them fall at the final hurdle on so many occasions both domestically and in Europe.
In addition, the overload of overseas players in all the Top 14 teams has contributed massively to the demise of the national team. Not only that but it is now beginning to have a knock-on effect on the ability of both Australia and South Africa to maintain the standards that saw them capture four World Cups between them.
That player drain to Europe is not good for the international game in general. Even New Zealand is bracing itself for an exodus after the Lions tour. The fact that the famous tourists now visit an individual country only once every 12 years, means that players in the host country are energised by the prospect of playing in that series.
Key All Blacks in Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Aaron Cruden have already indicated that the Lions tour was key in keeping them at home but once that series is over, a stint overseas is next on the agenda. Even New Zealand, with their vast playing resources, are not immune to a player drain. You saw how vulnerable they were without first choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in Chicago.
All those issues facing the Springboks, the Wallabies and the French have to offer Ireland a competitive advantage if they can continue on the upward spiral of the last six months. And two other key events in 2017 will also have a bearing on Ireland’s World Cup prospects.
The Lions Tour
The trip to New Zealand next summer will be quite heavily freighted with Ireland and England players. The group that returns home having absorbed most from the experience will put themselves in pole position to challenge the All Blacks for the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan two years later.
I have always contended the lessons learned by the sizeable English contingent on the 2001 tour to Australia played a significant role in their ultimate success back in the same country two years later. At the time of the Lions tour, the Wallabies were the World Cup holders, Tri Nations champions and Bledisloe Cup winners.
The English contingent returned home battle- hardened from that tour and secure in the knowledge Australia were beatable. They absorbed that experience and got stronger over the subsequent two years while Australia began to wane a little. When the two sides met in the 2003 World Cup final back in Sydney’s Olympic Stadium, Martin Johnson’s men were able to draw from the deciding third Lions test at the same arena where they had lost by a six-point margin. They had experienced this cauldron before against the same opposition and, although that decider went to extra-time, they knew what they had to do to win it.
If I was in Joe Schmidt’s shoes, I’d hope that as many Irish players get selected for the forthcoming Lions tour as possible, especially some of the younger brigade.
The experience would contribute massively to the development of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Peter O’Mahony and expose them to the type of pressure only faced at the semi-final and final phase of a World Cup.
It would also allow Schmidt bring a number of less experienced players on Ireland’s three-Test tour of America and Japan next June, exposing them to the high standards expected of anyone contemplating a regular starting slot in his Irish side.
While some of those players would inevitably lose out when the Lions contingent return, not only would it add to the depth of the international squad but it would also help propel standards even higher when those players return to their provincial setups. That, in turn, would help those heightened standards seep down to the academy players who now train on a regular basis with their senior counterparts in the single centre training facilities now in place in all four provinces.
While the next World Cup is in Japan, to win it will, more than likely, necessitate beating New Zealand who even at this remove are favourites to retain their crown. Regardless of the outcome, touring New Zealand next summer will only add to the knowledge base required to defeat them when it matters most. Next summer’s Lions tour provides the perfect opportunity for the Irish players to major on that.
November 17, 2017
You will not find any fixture of note on this particular date but it could yet prove even more significant than that historical day in Chicago last November. This is the potential date for the World Rugby Council to confirm which of South Africa, France or Ireland will host the 2023 World Cup.
There is no doubt in my mind Ireland should get it, and would do a remarkable job delivering a magnificent event but, as always with issues of this nature, it will come down to politics and who can secure sufficient votes to get over the line.
If we are successful in being offered the opportunity to host the world’s third largest sporting event, the boost it would provide for the sport would be enormous.
The support for rugby in this country has grown exponentially since the advent of professionalism.
The Heineken Cup and the exploits of Munster and Leinster, in particular, extended the audience into areas that were unthinkable when I was playing.
When you hear and read about the disappointment of Tipperary GAA that Semple Stadium in Thurles has been overlooked as a potential host venue, you know that the game in this country has turned quite a significant corner. Who would have thought that possible even a decade ago?
Rugby has captured the hearts and minds of a whole new audience over the last 20 years and staging a World Cup would only serve to extend its reach even further. Of equal significance is the fact that kids in their mid-teens, playing rugby in schools and clubs around the country, could harbour genuine aspirations of featuring in that tournament.
Players will appreciate the advantages of playing a global competition on their own doorstep, even if it didn’t exactly do England any favours last time out. Winning that bid would lift the whole profile of the game in this country and that feelgood factor is bound to rub off on the current squad.
With Joe Schmidt on board, every Irish qualified, professional player in the country will be busting a gut to be part of the national set-up. The benefits are there for all to see.
The rugby structure is in place for Ireland to succeed at a time when other world powers like Australia, France and South Africa are struggling to stay afloat. We must take advantage of that and strike while those unique circumstances prevail. Can we win a World Cup? Yes we can.
November 2, 2019
So who is likely to make the first ever Irish side to contest a World Cup final? For the purpose of the exercise, I am working on the basis Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Rob Kearney, Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip will be retired by then.
If they are still fit, available and worthy of a starting place then that would only serve to aid the cause even further, while more contenders are sure to emerge over the next few seasons.
If not, the match day squad could look something like this:
15: Simon Zebo, 14: Darren Sweetnam, 13: Garry Ringrose, 12: Robbie Henshaw, 11: Keith Earls, 10: Joey Carbery, 9: Conor Murray; 1: Jack McGrath, 2: Sean Cronin, 3: Tadhg Furlong, 4: Iain Henderson, 5: Devin Toner, 6: Peter O’Mahony (capt), 7: Sean O’Brien, 8: CJ Stander.
16: James Tracy, 17: Cian Healy, 18: Finlay Bealham, 19: Ultan Dillane, 20: Josh Van Der Flier, 21: Luke McGrath, 22: Paddy Jackson, 23: Bundee Aki.
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