Gerry Thornley: This doesn't feel like the end of the story
Ireland have proved they're worthy of ranking as second only to the All Blacks
Ireland’s Bundee Aki celebrating with Johnny Sexton and Jordi Murphy after they won the third test match against Australia in Sydney. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The season that kept on giving did so, almost predictably, right to the very last dramatic play of an unprecedented 10-month season.
So a campaign that gave us a third Grand Slam as well as a Triple Crown, a November clean sweep, Leinster’s European Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 14 double ended with a first series win away to one of the Southern Hemisphere big guns in 39 years.
To make the latter achievement even more commendable is that Ireland came from behind and maintained their voracious appetite for ticking off one box after another while at the same time Joe Schmidt broadened the squad’s depth and experience.
Players who scarcely, if at all featured in the Six Nations, were exposed to a more rarified air and prospered. At hooker this was forced by Rory Best’s absence, but Niall Scannell and Rob Herring flourished.
For Conan, opportunity knocked in the third test and he grabbed it with both hands, putting in a huge defensive shift in particular.
“Yeah, defensively it’s always something I need to be conscious of. It’s probably the thing I’ve been told to work most on. So today defensively I was pretty happy with my performance. I made a good few hits but probably didn’t carry as much as I would have liked, but I think I learned a lot out there.
“Without any hesitation that was the biggest game of my career, I think, by miles. It’s finals rugby, 1-1 in a test series, and I’ve been given an opportunity to go out there and play – so an absolutely massive game for me personally.
“I really enjoyed it. I think I learned a lot. I think there’s massive scope for me to get better in how I perform, but I don’t think I did myself an injustice, and I’m happy enough with how I went in the 60-odd minutes I got to play.
“What a great achievement for this squad, to have had that kind of diversity, chopping and changing players in the last few weeks, and to come out on top with a series win was absolutely fantastic.
“I think it shows the character more than anything else of the squad that, even the likes of Niall Scannell and Rob Herring going from being on the bench or not involved to starting or being on the bench because Sean Cronin unfortunately couldn’t play, just shows you how clued into the detail lads are even if they’re not involved.
“That’s a testament to the coaching staff about how well they try to prepare us, and how well us as players take that initiative to make sure our detail is spot on regardless of our position on match day.”
With Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock all back in pre-season with Leinster, the backrow stocks will be as impressive as ever, while the Ulster-bound Will Addison and new Munster recruit Mike Haley are likely to become part of the squad next season and provide further options in midfield and fullback.
The standard bearers of the squad remain just that, notably Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but to that company can now be added Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney.
The flip side of this is that the cupboard is still a tad bare at scrumhalf and fullback as things stand, both Murray and Kearney playing all three tests.
It would also be nice to see all this team’s excellence at retaining possession and creating chances converted into tries (though it’s worth recalling that the tally of 20 in the Six Nations was an Irish record).
In any event, all-conquering Ireland have proved themselves to the world eminently worthy of their ranking as second only to the almighty All Blacks. And so, as chunks of the English media were expecting until not so long ago, next November will see a clash between the world’s top two sides only that it will be in the Aviva Stadium rather than Twickenham.
Of course, England’s fall (tempered by their win in last Saturday’s dead rubber in Cape Town) serves as a cautionary tale, and they could turn it around just as readily again given the quality of their players.
There are differences though, not least Schmidt’s ways as compared to those of Eddie Jones, not to mention a more settled backroom team, a better relationship with the provinces and hence better game management.
There’s also the Green Army, who almost make any game like a home one. Conan was also blown away by the huge Irish support, which undoubtedly helped give the Irish players some life in their legs when they needed a lift.
“In the first week I probably didn’t notice because I wasn’t involved, but last week the atmosphere in Melbourne was one of the best atmospheres of any sporting event I’ve ever been to, and the same again in Sydney.
“I think it’s great that so many Irish people came out, and obviously there’s an abundance of Irish people in Melbourne and in Sydney and all across Australia. They definitely made themselves heard, and it definitely felt like a home game for us.
To look around the stadium and see so many green jerseys and scarves was absolutely fantastic, and I know it means a lot to the lads that people turned out the way they did.”
That was some season alright, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the end of the story.