DUBLIN, IRELAND – For the past six weeks, we’ve been checking in on the state of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby unions – a year ahead of the World Cup. To see the previous reviews click the following: Italy, Scotland, France, Wales, and England. This week concludes the series, with Six Nations champions Ireland bringing us home.
Almost every article discussing Irish rugby in the lead up to the new season has been focused on the absence of Brian O’Driscoll, and with good reason. The talismanic center was larger than life, a true force for both club and country even in the twilight of his career. However, Leinster must march on, a task at which they have become remarkably adept. The side won the Pro12 final at a canter against Glasgow, and will be returning the vast majority of that side. In terms of support, the rise of the capital’s team throughout the late 2000’s and early 2010’s has meant a revitalization for the province. Where previous Munster-Leinster derbys were a sea of red, the blue clad supporters now more than capably hold their own in terms of domestic market-share. Munster is never to be discarded lightly, however. Though the men from Limerick absolutely smashed Toulouse in their European quarterfinal, a disappointing defeat to Toulon meant that they went out in the semi-final round in both of last year’s premiere competitions. Ulster cannot be discounted either. The reconstruction of Ravenhill is an encouraging sign. When the initial outlay is recouped, increased profits will hopefully turn into increased salary pools. Johnny Sexton has already expressed interest in returning to Ireland. The provinces appear to have stopped the player exodus before it truly began, unlike their Celtic counterparts, the Welsh. The final province, Connacht, is often forgotten when discussing the state of the Irish game. However, the side has seen continual improvement over the past five years, transforming themselves into legitimate European competition rather than cannon fodder.
Along with England and Wales, Ireland sit in the fortunate half of the Six Nations table which possesses a stable management situation. Joe Schmidt did all that could possibly be asked by winning the Six Nations in his first try after the stagnant tactics of Declan Kidney’s reign. The triumph was slightly marred by the away loss to England. This was more than counteracted by Ireland’s renewed pugnaciousness. Schmidt was unfortunate to inherit a summer schedule which saw Ireland travel to Argentina in what amounted to a tour against the Puma’s second string. However, his tactics appear sound, and he has a trait that all teams desire from their manager; he will not lose you games. Ireland have greatly benefited in the professional era from the presence of automatic selections such as O’Driscoll, O’Gara, Sexton, and O’Connell. Schmidt’s most pressing task is to develop the emerging generation of Irish players into stalwarts that he can build a competitive international side around.
National Team Situation
The national team is in a slightly precarious financial situation, partially because the IRFU failed to raise as much money from debenture sales as they had previously hoped. However, on the playing field, Ireland remain a very strong outfit. Last year’s Six Nations was won because the entire team put in superhuman efforts for departing godhead O’Driscoll. Ireland need to find a way to summon similar motivation in the future. The forwards are relatively settled, with Rory Best, Paul O’Connell, and Jamie Heaslip providing veteran leadership. The flankers have been thinned by injury in recent years, which could be a major problem in the World Cup. Sexton is an interesting fly-half, fully capable of winning or losing matches in open play. He was masterful in the first two matches of the Six Nations, dictating the tempo against Wales and Scotland before losing the thread in England and France. He will have to be consistent throughout the length of a tournament for Ireland to have a real chance at going deep in the World Cup. Blooding a new outside center for the first time in fifteen years will be a monumental task, with Robbie Henshaw among the potential successors to O’Driscoll’s jersey. Henshaw received O’Driscoll’s blessing, with the legend expressing the belief that the Connacht center will be, “the next seasoned campaigner” at 13 for the Irish.
Ireland were exceptionally lucky with their draw, pulling Italy, France, Romania, and Canada. The clash between the French and Irish will decide the group barring a miracle. The only major worry going into next year is potential injuries, with most of Ireland’s stars falling prey to the injury bug at some point in their career, as Sexton has recently with his broken jaw. Schmidt seems to have a good system in place however, but the Irish will have to confront Southern Hemisphere opposition. Their close run against the All Blacks last November should give the side confidence, and the Irish will fancy themselves dark horses in 2015.