December. In rugby terms, it means little.
A cursory nod to Christmas besides, it is business as usual. Training trundles on through the festive season. Players play, coaches coach and, overlooking it all as per usual, is one man at the top of this particular family tree.
That was Declan Kidney 12 months ago. Not anymore. A new head coach tends to bear witness to traumatic times all by itself but Kidney’s departure and Joe Schmidt’s accession to the throne was, in this instance, merely one tremor in a calendar year when the national team was shaken to its foundations.
Eight months on and that Six Nations campaign still beggars belief. From the high of Cardiff on the opening day to the low of the defeat to Italy in Rome when Peter O’Mahony was dragooned onto the wing and Brian O’Driscoll sat in the sin bin, it was a campaign to test our reserves of patience and credulity.
Injuries were only part of the tapestry. It was a tournament that kicked off on the back of Jonathan Sexton’s seismic signing by Racing Metro, one that offered the dramatic Jackson-or-O’Gara debate and that saw Kidney’s chances of a new contract blown by a hideous injury list and the resultant dip in results.
Throw in a summer tour, the Lions in Australia and the emotional whirlpool that gripped team and supporters alike between those November games against the Wallabies and All Blacks and it made for a 12-month period that tested those at its epicentre like never before.
That said, very few were in the eye of the storm throughout. Only two players — Mike Ross and Peter O’Mahony —featured in all 10 games.
Beyond that the only ever-presents were team manager Mick Kearney and Les Kiss, who has served with Kidney and Schmidt while holding the reins in North America.
So, how to sum all that up?
Kiss says: “Jeez, I haven’t stopped to think about it just yet so it is difficult to try and tie it all together with a nice tidy bow but there is no doubt but that it has been a challenging year. There has been a lot of change, not just with players but with the coaching staff and other personnel, so it has been difficult at times.
“The injury profile was hugely testing, of course, but what that has done is allowed us to expose guys to that Test environment. The tour to the US and Canada and the new regime have helped that along as well so it has been an interesting year, even if the last game ended with that heartbreaking defeat.”
The net effect was a 10-game calendar where only four games were won, five lost and another — the Six Nations meeting with France in Dublin — that ended in stalemate but 2013 will likely be looked back on with more affection given the accelerated manner in which the team’s development was forced.
Fifty players wore the green jersey at one point or another, 13 of them for the first time. Others — Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson among them — got to feel more comfortable in them having made their debuts just the year before, which offers considerable hope for the year ahead.
“We used 30 players in the November games alone but I would say that, yeah, there has definitely been a gradual process of building that strength in depth the last few years. That will continue going ahead but it can’t be willy nilly. You are always looking to balance that with what you are trying to achieve in the next game.
“But it is about maturing your processes as well. With our small playing resources, you need to make the absolute most of what you have. It’s about being smart with what you have as well.”
Injuries are the normal avenue through which openings appear for those perceived to be lower down the food chain, but they are not the only one. Schmidt made rotation a virtue rather than a vice at Leinster and he has displayed signs of that already with Ireland after only three games in charge.
Most notable was the decision to hand Eoin Reddan the starting spot against Australia, despite Conor Murray’s prominence under the previous regime and on tour with the Lions, and such a policy suggests we are in for more interesting team announcements come the next Six Nations.
Sixteen Leinster players — plus Jonathan Sexton — featured against New Zealand last month so the policy will not be new to many of them but its use in the Test sphere will be, so it may be that the players will require some educating as to the realities of a more flexible rota.
“It’s not so much about education but an awareness that there is need for the Irish team to be in a good place in all parts of the game and the players as well. It’s not just enough to be a good tighthead. Your skillset has to have more to it than that but it can’t be token stuff either.
“You have to offer competitiveness and that means there has to be less in the way of entitlement. It is about performing on and off the field. You have to push everyone else and be an all-season guy. That competition makes everyone better.”
All going well the result will be an Irish team better stacked and equipped to deal with the vagaries of an increasingly attritional sport and, though the Six Nations remains top priority, it is impossible not to crane your neck forward and imagine that it should stand the team in good stead for the next World Cup.
Schmidt and Co. have so far said very little publicly about RWC 2015, unlike Stuart Lancester who is no doubt being prodded to do so at every opportunity by the RFU’s promotional arm, but the event — and Ireland’s consistent failings in it — will colour everything we see this next 12 months nonetheless.
“There has actually been very little said about it up to now but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t planning for it. Joe and the rest of us are doing all the stuff that needs doing behind the front lines. There are obviously logistics and other parts that are being put in place but it hasn’t really been something we have sat down and discussed in a meeting.
“The focus is on the here and now. For us it is all about the Scotland game at the start of the Six Nations, making sure that the green shoots we saw at the end of November come to fruition there. That focus helps the bigger picture. There will be a point when we do sit down and look at 2015 in more detail, probably on the Argentina tour.”
Another busy year lies poised.
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