What a tour, what a season, what does it all mean?
An Ireland squad that achieved so much in 2017-18 has arrived home from Australia and gone its separate ways for a well-earned summer break after crowning Irish rugby’s most successful season with another piece of history secured in the dying moments of the campaign.
CJ Stander will this morning be back on his family’s farm in George, South Africa, clocking up a different set of minutes to the 673 he gave in game-time to the national team this season. Rob Herring will be in Belfast opening his new coffee shop while Jack McGrath prepares for his wedding and dozens of others hit a myriad of beaches from the Med to Middle East and further afield.
All have played their part in a season their illustrious predecessors could only have dreamed of, adding a three-Test series win in the Southern Hemisphere to a Six Nations Grand Slam which has propelled Joe Schmidt’s team to its highest position in the World Rugby Rankings.
Second in the world? Few would dispute their position as the best of the rest behind the all-conquering All Blacks after a season of remarkable consistency in terms of performance and results.
Just 14 months out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan, Ireland have also shown a major improvement from the injury-hit side which limped out of the 2015 edition with yet another quarter-final defeat stalking them on the plane home from Cardiff.
Stung by that last-eight defeat to Argentina, Schmidt has steadily built strength in depth in most positions behind his first XV, although there is still some way to go if he is to go into a World Cup fully comfortable with his options at scrum-half behind Conor Murray.
Testament to Ireland’s reliance on the Munster and Lions number nine is the fact that in 10 appearances for Ireland this season, he has been withdrawn from the fray only once before the 70 minute mark and that was against Italy when a bonus point was already in the bag, while on this closely-fought series with the Wallabies Murray played all but six minutes of the three Tests, giving Kieran Marmion little more than four minutes’ exposure to tier-one opposition in the first Test and John Cooney 120 seconds in Melbourne.
It is difficult to blame Schmidt for that when a player like Murray is concerned and clearly his priority on this tour was at fly-half, giving Joey Carbery an invaluable start in the series opener in which he acquitted himself admirably.
The absence of captain Rory Best also enabled the management to get some much needed high-pressure minutes into replacement hookers Rob Herring and Niall Scannell, both of whom will have returned home with confidence and experience considerably enhanced.
This is an Ireland squad better able to think on its feet when the going gets tough and manage pressure situations efficiently and without panic where once it may have derailed the effort.
And as Best nursed a hamstring injury at home, Schmidt also saw some exceptional leadership, not just from vice captains Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton but the rest of his corps of senior players.
And when stand-in skipper O’Mahony was felled by a shoulder injury in the final Test, Ireland didn’t miss a beat, much to the head coach’s satisfaction.
Equally impressive has been the introduction of younger, less experienced players. In addition to the aforementioned hookers, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale have come through a challenging defensive test against back-three rivals Israel Folau, Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty, Tadhg Beirne has grabbed his opportunity with two strong cameos off the bench at both flanker and lock and fellow Munster signing Carbery will arrive at his new province all the better for his hour running the show against a top-tier side in the first Test, no doubt relishing the prospect of at last getting some extended game time at number 10 after a season at full-back in Leinster.
And to mention James Ryan in the same breath seems faintly absurd given the way he has taken to Test rugby over the last 12 months and already has the demeanour and consistency of a seasoned international at the ripe age of 21.
That all those developmental boxes have been ticked while Ireland have scored a series victory in the Southern Hemisphere this month has to be viewed as a massive bonus.
“It is,” agreed Jack McGrath, who like O’Mahony earned his 50th Ireland cap in Saturday’s final Test in Sydney.
“I only know the Leinster side of things but what I’m seeing is they’re coming into the provincial set-up ready to go, physically, and then mentally they get a few weeks’ training with us and they’re under that pressure in training, it’s very similar to games and they’re ready to go.
“So it’s great to have that luxury of swapping and changing the team because that’s what you need. We know we are building towards a World Cup so we need have three players in each position and you can see the different rotations in positions throughout the tour, that’s what is being tried to be done.”
Jack Conan is another Irish forward whose Test career is still in its infancy yet he looked accomplished in a shuffled back row, slipping seamlessly into the No.8 jersey in Sydney as Stander moved to blindside and O’Mahony switched from six to seven.
Conan sees no reason why this group of players cannot look confidently at matching the season just gone and heading into the World Cup with a serious body of work under their belts from the campaign ahead.
“I don’t think you could say that we played to our best. I don’t think there was a Twickenham-type performance from us that we played the last day of the Six Nations but to be at 85 or 90 per cent and still be able to come down and here and do what no other Irish side has done since 1979 is absolutely fantastic.
“That was only my ninth cap today but there’s lads with 50, 60, 70 caps that have never done it so an absolutely historic year for Irish rugby but I think it’s only the beginning. The strength in depth and the talent and the ability in this squad, we’re really going to go places in the coming years.”
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