Gerry Thornley: Irish rugby primed to be a contender in every arena in 2017

From the Six Nations to the choice of 2023 World Cup hosts, prospects are promising

Irish fans celebrate  Ireland’s 35-25 Six Nations win over Scotland in Dublin last March. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Irish fans celebrate Ireland’s 35-25 Six Nations win over Scotland in Dublin last March. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Four festive full houses are testimony to the newfound buoyancy in Irish rugby, ensuring plenty of reasons to be way more cheerful about the prospects for 2017 than was the case this time 12 months ago.

That said, the revival stems from Ireland recovering from an injury-bedevilled, under-achieving start to the Six Nations to finish third. Connacht’s thrilling Guinness Pro12 success was underpinned by Leinster, Ulster and Munster also finishing in the top six and thereby qualifying for the European Champions Cup, an achievement that is liable to look all the more impressive in years to come.

With January set to sort out the wheat from the chaff in the Champions Cup pool stages, all four provinces remain alive. At the very least, the rejuvenated forces of Leinster, along with Munster and even Connacht, harbour real chances of reaching the last eight.

Saracens, it’s true, remain well ahead of the posse, with Wasps looking to be their only genuine rivals from the Premiership.

For all their riches, the Top 14 contenders in France don’t look as imposing as a year ago. Last year’s Top 14 champions and European runners-up, Racing ’92, are already out of contention in this season’s Champions Cup after not “not being there mentally”, as Ronan O’Gara conceded.

Toulon, with club president Mourad Boudjellal’s interest on the wane and an amalgam of expensively assembled globetrotters appearing somewhat rudderless without Bernard Laporte and other retired on-field leaders, have lost much of their three-in-a-row lustre. That said, they can still qualify, as can Toulouse, Bordeaux-Bègles and either Montpellier or Castres.

Yet again, though, Clermont look by some distance France’s best hope, albeit with their historical baggage.

Second Captains

In any event, apart from Saracens and then Wasps (beaten by Connacht) and Clermont (beaten by Ulster), the Irish provinces look as equipped as any of the others to dine at Europe’s top table. All four can add to the feelgood factor surrounding the Irish squad after their exploits in South Africa, Chicago and Dublin against the southern hemisphere big three.

Second favourites

Ireland enter the Six Nations as second favourites and have every chance of maintaining a top-four world ranking and, with it, a top seeding at the 2019 World Cup draw in May. A realistic target is to still be in contention when the voluble Eddie Jones and his all-conquering England come to the Aviva Stadium on March 18th – with the Sweet Chariot perhaps seeking a world-record-equalling 19th Test win and Grand Slam. Sweet indeed.

That said, Italy, Scotland and Wales also had wins over the southern hemisphere heavyweights in November and even a much-improved France ought to have done so too.

There are plenty of other caveats on this promising horizon, not least the demands on the players in a sport that appears to become ever more physically brutal. For example, in the daunting Lions tour to New Zealand, the first of 10 games – which will include matches against all five Super Rugby franchises, the Maoris and then three Tests against the All Blacks – will take place just a week after the Pro12 and Premiership finals.

One can only imagine the ravages such a schedule will leave on the players. But ravages there will be, as history shows. The careers of Jeremy Davidson, Paul Wallace, Rob Henderson and others were never quite the same again. And yet not only will all crave to be on that Lions tour and then strain every sinew to be a central part of the Test series, but the more Irish players who succeed in doing so should mean things are all the better for Joe Schmidt and the Irish team on the way through to the World Cup in Japan in 2019.

Development

For all those who suffered physically following Lions tours, there are many, many more – such as Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell – who cite Lions tours as a hugely significant part of their development as Test players. Take Conor Murray, for whom the Lions tour to Australia three years ago marked a significant stepping stone on his steadily ascending career path to becoming the best scrumhalf around.

Ireland’s first Lions scrumhalf since John Robbie in 1980, Murray went on the tour as third choice, but had there been a fourth Test he would assuredly have started it. By the same extension, you’d imagine the likes of Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and others would only benefit from such an experience, provided they return relatively unscathed.

The more Irish players who are picked by Warren Gatland and co, the more Schmidt and his coaching ticket can further develop Ireland’s strength in depth on Ireland’s two-Test tour to Japan, an even more relevant expedition with the 2019 World Cup in mind, given that Schmidt himself has extended his tenure.

In a way that would not have seemed imaginable in the fallout from the 2015 World Cup, the Ireland team can unquestionably approach the next one as contenders, and at the very least achieve a first semi-final in nine attempts. What happens this year will go a significant way to underpinning that aim.

As momentous as anything that happens on the pitch will be the decision in the middle of November 2017 by the World Rugby Council as to whether Ireland, France or South Africa will host the tenth World Cup in 2023. And as those four festive sellouts demonstrated, the appetite for hosting such an event in this country is stronger than ever.

Ireland go into that contest as contenders as well. A very interesting and potentially momentous year looms.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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