Raise toast to 2018 but biggest test on horizon for Ireland

With trophy cabinets laden with team and individual accolades after all the high points in 2018, next year can only surpass those achievements with a World Cup victory in Japan With trophy cabinets laden with team and individual accolades after all the high points in 2018, next year can only surpass those achievements with a World Cup victory in Japan, writes Simon Lewis.

Raise toast to 2018 but biggest test on horizon for Ireland

With trophy cabinets laden with team and individual accolades after all the high points in 2018, next year can only surpass those achievements with a World Cup victory in Japan, writes Simon Lewis.

If Johnny Sexton finished the year saying it was so good he has to pinch himself, then you know Irish rugby fans had plenty to celebrate also.

So successful has it been in 2018 that it would be difficult not to look back on these past 12 months and decide that supporters of the game have never had it so good.

They will not tire of being reminded of the Six Nations Grand Slam, a first since 2009 and only the third in championship history, secured at Twickenham on that bitterly cold St Patrick’s Day.

They will not grow bored watching Jacob Stockdale’s wonder try to defeat the All Blacks on that historic night at the Aviva Stadium last month.

Nor will they forget the series win in Australia, or Leinster’s European and PRO14 double, all of which helped make Sexton’s coronation as

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Yes, these have been the best of times, replete with such unprecedented success and recognised so often at an array of award ceremonies in the last few weeks that will surely have had the IRFU performance department attempting to line the tuxedos of players and coaches alike with GPS tracking devices in an attempt to limit the exertion of repeatedly lifting trophies.

On the night Sexton collected his World Rugby honour, Ireland also picked up the World Team of the Year award and Joe Schmidt was proclaimed Coach of the Year.

Their arms must be red raw with all the pinching and one can only wonder at how difficult it will be to follow those high points as we turn the page into 2019 and cast our eyes towards September and the kick-off to the World Cup in Japan.

The old adage is that if you stand still in elite sport you will surely fall behind, as rivals double their efforts to regain ground and the champions go from hunters to prey.

That will undoubtedly be the challenge facing Schmidt and his coaching staff as they prepare to defend Ireland’s Six Nations title and build towards the opening World Cup pool game against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.

Ireland lifted the Six Nations title and won a Grand Slam in 2018.
Ireland lifted the Six Nations title and won a Grand Slam in 2018.

The omens are good that a semi-final appearance is finally within Ireland’s grasp having previously eluded every head coach, including Schmidt, since the tournament’s inception in 1987.

The recent November Tests saw the further stress-testing of the less experienced resources within the squad and encouraging performances from Schmidt’s second string in the wins over Italy and the USA as well as seeing off tier-one opposition in Argentina having made a number of enforced changes to his line-up.

Those are the sort of foundations which underpinned the undoubted excellence of the frontline troops who scored that momentous first home win over New Zealand last month having delivered only a third Grand Slam with victories in Paris and London.

Those much-trusted starters remain crucial to Irish hopes of continued success in 2019 as Schmidt faces into his final year at the helm before turning his back, at least temporarily, on the coaching game.

Yet if the 2015 World Cup taught him anything, it was the need to have ready-made replacements on standby to pick up the baton of those first-choice players fall by the wayside.

Some will, no doubt, fail to make the plane for Japan next autumn, others will be sent home to rehabilitate tournament-ending injuries and Schmidt has spent the past three and a bit years making sure he has those next in line primed and prepared to fill the inevitable breaches.

Such is the gruelling and often brutal nature of professional rugby, which is why the recent revelations by Brian O’Driscoll that taking prescribed painkillers during his playing days “almost became like a habit” are so disturbing.

O’Driscoll retired in 2014 and that is a long time ago in rugby terms with former Leinster team-mates Leo Cullen, now head coach, and Rhys Ruddock, responding to the former captain’s claims by suggesting cultures have changed and that player welfare remains the paramount obligation for the provinces as employers.

That is not to say painkillers are not still readily available and the issues deserve as much scrutiny as that given to banned performance-enhancing drugs.

This was, after all, the same year in which South African lock Gerbrandt Grobler left Munster under a cloud at the end of a one-year contract following the furore in some quarters that he should never have been signed because he had served a suspension for taking PEDs.

Grobler wins a lineout for Munster
Grobler wins a lineout for Munster

The issue, in truth, should not have been with the player, rather the decision-making process at both Munster and the IRFU, who have the ultimate sanction over player signings, that allowed Grobler to join.

It represented a black mark on the governing body in a difficult year off the field which also saw the termination of contracts at Ulster for players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding following a disciplinary review which followed their acquittal on rape charges at a Belfast Crown Court.

It put the IRFU in a sticky situation, not aided by the appearance of Ireland captain Rory Best and team-mate Iain Henderson during the early stages of the trial during a Six Nations training week when Schmidt was preparing his squad for the opener against France.

Both Jackson and Olding left these shores to rebuild their playing careers in France, though IRFU performance director David Nucifora did not discount the possibility of them returning on IRFU contracts at a future date.

Nucifora has some contract issues of his own to resolve in 2019, when his five-year contract at the top of the governing body’s professional game decision-making process expires on May 31.

The Australian has helped Schmidt turn Ireland into potential world-beaters by retaining key players, and implementing structural changes that have often annoyed provinces and clubs, all for the ultimate purpose of improving the national team set-up and the pathways to it.

If Nucifora were to depart in the same year as the head coach, the IRFU could face a very dark future indeed.

Darvid Nucifora
Darvid Nucifora

Whether the IRFU manages to retain Nucifora or not will not affect rising public expectations for the national team’s ongoing success into a World Cup year that will start with yet another exceedingly tough assignment, the visit of England to the Aviva on February 2 for the opening round of the Guinness Six Nations.

As title defences go, this is a pretty testing opening act against a side that lost all its post-World Cup momentum built by Eddie Jones in the space of four short months between February and June to lose its Six Nations crown and a series in South Africa but rallied strongly during the November Test window.

The 2019 championship, new title sponsor and all, looks set to be a cracker with Wales also rejuvenated as Warren Gatland begins his final 11 months of an impressive 12-year stint in charge, and Scotland once again threatening to realise their full potential after a rollercoaster season under Gregor Townsend that saw them beat Argentina and Australia and run the All Blacks close but also lose to Fiji and the USA.

Ireland must travel to both Murrayfield and Cardiff but not before the old enemy visit Dublin for a game that could well get Schmidt’s long goodbye off to the worst possible start unless his side is at the top of its game.

Ireland start 2019 within touching distance of the world number one ranking for so long seen as the sole domain of the All Blacks.

The team, head coach and Sexton have been proclaimed best in class at last month’s World Rugby Awards and the bookmakers have slashed their odds for both the Six Nations and World Cup in the wake of a flurry of interest from punters impressed by their magnificent home victory over New Zealand six weeks ago.

Those expectations could not be higher but such is the nature of professional rugby that the bubble could burst very quickly for Schmidt and Ireland, just as it did for Jones and England in 2018.

Elite athletes and their coaches walk a perpetual tightrope and as the late Anthony Foley once succinctly reminded us, sport has no memory.

However fine a time Ireland have had these past 12 months, it will count for nothing come Saturday, February 2 when the Test machine rumbles back into action once more.

And so too for the provinces. The feelgood factor has seeped down from the national side to all four corners of the island with both Connacht and Ulster reborn under incoming head coaches, respectively Andy Friend and Dan McFarland, while Munster finally seem set to benefit from a settled backroom and Leinster continue to set new standards for the rest to follow.

Their success is all the more remarkable for the fact that it was as recently as three seasons ago that Leo Cullen stepped in to replace Matt O’Connor as head coach after just a season in charge of the forwards since his retirement and Leinster failed to get out of the Champions Cup pool after home and away defeats to both Toulon and Wasps, the latter by an aggregate of 84-16.

To become champions of Europe so soon after that season of misery should give hope to all but then again Leinster’s increasingly deep mines of talent put them in a unique position.

Leinster lift the Champions Cup last season.
Leinster lift the Champions Cup last season.

It still takes experience and acumen to transform that talent into professional success but it is that strength in depth that has been the most impressive aspect of Leinster’s return to the summit of European club rugby in tandem with the PRO14 title for a historic double last season.

It continues to be seen in the recent and sizeable league wins over the Ospreys and Dragons with what once might have been termed second and third teams.

With the ease in which they can integrate less experienced squad member and introduce young blood to the fray without dropping results, Leinster are dismantling that notion as simply as they take apart opposition teams.

Which brings us back to the champions’ trip to Thomond Park this evening, as good a point as any to gauge just how much has changed in Munster under the tenure of Johann van Graan.

Even without Grand Slam winners of the calibre of Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Dan Leavy, as they will be this evening, Leinster remain the yardstick by which all other provinces are judged.

Last year’s 34-23 win on St Stephen’s night by a team with equal talents left at home was a sobering reality check a month into the new Munster head coach’s posting.

There have been two further defeats to Leinster since, the first a one-point PRO14 semi-final loss at the RDS last May, and this season’s 30-22 league reverse at the Aviva on October 6.

The first of those ended Munster’s 2017-18 campaign on a frustratingly bum note given the opportunities they had to win that game only to let themselves down with poor technical skills and the lack of a cutting edge at crucial moments.

This season has offered supporters glimpses of van Graan’s more adventurous gameplan and glimmers of hope for a brighter future with the likes of Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery and Mike Haley arriving in the summer to augment the first team with the skills and vision that can deliver a multi-dimensional approach to the game that had previously been lacking.

Carbery arrived at Munster in the summer.
Carbery arrived at Munster in the summer.

Yet the problems that saw Munster come up short in both their league and European semi-finals last season have not been totally eradicated.

Execution in pressure situations has repeatedly seen crucial points left out on the pitch and nowhere has that been more telling than when Munster are forced to flee the home comforts of Cork and Limerick. Just these past two weeks have seen games lost in Castres and Belfast that might have been won had van Graan’s men taken the chances they

had worked so hard to create. They need to resolve the issue ahead of upcoming trips to PRO14 conference rivals Connacht next Saturday in Galway and then, just six days later, Gloucester for a pivotal Champions Cup pool match.

Not winning in Castres on December 15 would have removed an awful lot of pressure from this appointment at Kingsholm but now Munster are set to have their credentials as genuine contenders put to the test on another tension-filled night on foreign soil.

There is more parochial business to attend to first, though, with Munster looking to avoid not just a first home defeat at Thomond Park since Leinster’s win on December 26, 2017, but a third in succession in all competitions after those losses to Castres and Ulster.

Van Graan is yet to experience such a blot on his head coaching record, though he did lose back-to-back games this time last year.

So despite those moments of optimism, there remains a nagging doubt about just where this Munster team is right now as we approach the final game of the year.

One might have expected more tangible signs of progress than that as we turn into 2019, particularly from a province that in recent weeks made public its strategic objective to become the “best club in the world” and set its head coach the target of delivering at least one of the Guinness PRO14 or Champions Cup titles by May 2021.

That means a first trophy since 2011 within the next two and a half seasons. That may not sound unrealistic and you can be sure van Graan’s objectives reach far higher than his organisation’s.

Yet to be the best demands that you first become the best in your own backyard, and losing twice a season to Leinster is not the basis for any strategic plan.

It all makes for a fascinating end to an enthralling 2018.

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