Despite a disappointing Six Nations, there is optimism in Brian O’Driscoll’s voice when he discusses Ireland’s prospects this summer.
Irish fans should be excited about June and how special the month could be, he says
For Joe Schmidt and his side there is the challenge of a first trip to South Africa for over decade — a place where they are still yet to win a Test match.
But, alongside that, June holds the possibility of another first, as Ireland’s sevens teams, both men and women, aim to reach this summer’s Olympics in Rio, during the final qualification tournaments.
For O’Driscoll, the prospect of Ireland beating South Africa and qualifying for the Olympics can be summed up rather succinctly.
“It would be a special month,” O’Driscoll says, speaking at the launch of the HSBC Future of Rugby Report.
“We haven’t had success down in South Africa before, but I think you always live in hope. You really feel that if they could target that first Test match against South Africa, we are absolutely capable of beating them.
“I just think you can’t give them too much respect and you can’t give them a lead, particularly in South Africa. I only toured there once with Ireland, and I think we were probably guilty of giving the opposition too much respect. With regards to the sevens team, the expectation level is low as to whether they will qualify for the Olympics. But if they did manage to do that, it would be really exceptional and it would create huge excitement in Ireland, for sure.”
O’Driscoll’s enthusiasm about Ireland’s hopes for the summer is undoubtedly greater than it was during the recent Six Nations championship.
Hampered by injuries, Ireland relinquished their crown, after successive title-winning campaigns under Schmidt.
O’Driscoll agrees that it was a disappointing outcome, but, despite the result, he is adamant there are plenty of positives.
“I think, all things considered, during the Six Nations we were pretty ravaged throughout and we can’t afford to lose key individuals, unlike some other nations,” O’Driscoll says.
“You look, as well, at the performances in the Six Nations, the ones we lost. I think the performance against England was incredibly brave, against a superior English team. We kept them at bay and even took the lead in the second-half.
“The draw against Wales was a fair result, but, going 13-0 up, you might feel you missed an opportunity. And, then, there was a point loss to France, when we should have done better in the first-half to turn pressure and territory into points.
“So there are very fine margins on what is considered to be a poor Six Nations, by some people’s standards, comparatively for the last two years, where we’ve managed to win both championships. I think we are in a pretty good place.”
While O’Driscoll believes Ireland may be on the right path, the former captain is still aware of the challenge ahead for Schmidt’s side.
Ireland have never won a Test match against the Springboks, in South Africa, and their last tour there, in 2004, ended in a 2-0 series defeat.
O’Driscoll was part of that squad and, having also travelled there with the Lions, he knows more than most just how hostile an environment awaits Ireland.
“With Ireland, it sort of depends on where you are,” he says. “I think up north, in Bloemfontein, it was a little more hostile than down in Cape Town.
“But you want to play against the best teams, in the best stadia, in the most difficult surroundings, because they are the challenges that if you manage to turn the opposition over, they are the ones you get the most satisfaction from.
“There is very little joy in playing against teams you are expected to beat at home. It is the really difficult games, where you have had to be mentally tough and physically strong, there the ones you remember for a long time, if you come out on a favourable result,” O’Driscoll says.
While the prospect of claiming a first win in South Africa is exciting for Irish rugby, O’Driscoll says that June could have even greater ramifications for the game in Ireland.
Rugby sevens has been added to the Olympic programme for the first time in 100 years, and with it comes the opportunity for Ireland’s men and women to compete in Rio this summer.
The smaller-sided format of the game had previously been overlooked by the IRFU, but O’Driscoll believes that if a spot in Rio is secured by either the men or women, during their qualification tournaments in June, the benefits could be huge for all aspects of Irish rugby.
“It would be absolutely enormous if a team managed to get into the Olympics,” says O’Driscoll.
“It would be incredible, if either were able to make it into the Olympics. If you are in the Olympics, it doesn’t matter what the sport is, the country gets behind our own.
“We don’t have a huge number of Olympians, so anyone who is competing, no matter what level, we will always lend huge support behind.
“So, it would be brilliant if they did manage it.
“When it [Ireland’s sevens programme] was disbanded, I think it was well over 10 years ago, I think it was a monetary issue. But not only that, we couldn’t split our resources from a playing point of view, because we simply didn’t have the numbers.
“I think, now, there is a realisation that it can add massively to the XV’s game and, in time, it can, hopefully, be its own entity, as well, where players, individually, are just sevens players and are not looking to filter through into the XV’s game.”
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