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Gordon D’Arcy: Analyse Ireland’s achievements without the World Cup lens

Too many unpredictable factors at play to use recent wins as a source of hope for 2023

As a rugby enthusiast I can get carried away in obsessing about the 2023 World Cup as they do in England and France. However, applying that filter to Ireland’s three Autumn Nations Series wins serves little value when taking into consideration Irish rugby structures.

The wins represent standalone achievements and should be celebrated as that rather than trying to project additional importance. Ireland will play a minimum of 16 Tests – that’s not including World Cup warmup matches – before they touch down in France in a couple of years.

There are many intangibles, circumstances that are unforeseeable now in relation to form, injury, momentum generated by results that will better establish Ireland’s prospects on the eve of the tournament.

Over the past three weeks there was plenty to admire not only in beating Japan, New Zealand and Argentina but the style of play in doing so. The evolution process that Andy Farrell, his coaching team and the players had spoken about over the past year was finally visible in the performances.

The de-programming of the overly structured approach that had compromised some of Ireland’s performances over the previous couple of years was finally completed in time for the first game of the Autumn Nations Series. There was some evidence at the tail end of last season’s Six Nations Championship but no one can be in any doubt that they are now playing a different brand of rugby.

It’s refreshing. There was a feel good factor in the stands at the Argentina game. People were enthused about the way Ireland play as well as the results that have followed. Farrell has constructed a game plan and his coaches have added the detail.

Take for example the work of Paul O’Connell in re-structuring the lineout and the forward play in general. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel but what he has done is focus on the basics being done exceptionally well. It’s not an accidental reference because the foundations for all three wins have been laid by the forwards. Against the Pumas they weighed in with all seven tries.

The Irish pack contains some exceptional players who are slap bang in form. Tadhg Furlong is back to his rampaging best while Caelan Doris has produced an outstanding body of work but in truth, those highly elevated performance levels apply to every Irish starting forward in the campaign and several who contributed off the bench.

Ireland’s set piece excellence was perfectly illustrated in Josh van der Flier’s first try against Argentina. The throw and catch were both perfect and the instant Tadhg Beirne’s toes touched down on terra firma, van der Flier and Furlong’s body height and timing was sublime as they drove into him and kickstarted the Irish maul.

The Pumas had contested in the air and, lacking numbers and structure on the ground, there was no way they could legally prevent the try from being scored. It wasn’t particularly clever or innovative, just brilliantly executed.

Farrell and Mike Catt have built layers in attack on the back of the work of the Irish pack and the team now boasts multiple playmakers. Decision-making is no longer the prerogative of one or two players as individuals are encouraged to step up into the role of first receiver or be the player to get the second touch and put some shape on the attack.

Doris, Furlong, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park have all taken responsibility and this means that not everything has to be funneled through the outhalf, be it Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery or Harry Byrne. It promotes greater speed and fluency to the attack with the knock-on effect that Ireland are much more difficult to defend.

The component parts of the team have largely fired during these three matches, a world class tight five, a backrow that is balanced, and a backline that possesses the speed of thought and foot to maximise that platform. The bench has added energy and momentum right across the campaign.

Ireland were without their first choice halfbacks against Argentina and there was definitely a little bit of zip missing in attack. Joey Carbery did not put a foot wrong but there is so much more to his game that is just not flowing at the moment. That’s not to say that he didn’t play well, he most certainly did, but there are more gears there.

It was interesting to note how effective Carbery was as a second receiver having switched to fullback with Harry Byrne’s arrival. Is Carbery’s future welded to the 10 jersey or is there an option for him to switch to fullback even when coming off the bench? Byrne was operating on a different frequency initially to his teammates. He went straight to his box of tricks, looking for the razzle dazzle from the ‘get go.’

It never quite clicked for him but it did highlight why he is so valuable in rugby currency today because he is an on-field problem solver. At one stage there was space for Robert Baloucoune but a lot of bodies in the way. Set-up to pass but denied the option to do so, Byrne did not duck back under but tried the backwards/sideways kick; it struck his shin but he was willing to find a way outside the conventional.

Clearly he was buzzing and trying to force things a little bit, you just hope he will have more than 40 minutes of high grade rugby by the end of the year. Durability is still a question that needs to be answered.

Conor Murray’s strengths are appreciably different from those of Gibson-Park. He is no longer the first choice nine. The question is can he service Ireland’s new attacking shape? He may have to learn some new tricks; he will definitely have to change/add to his game.

Most players go through that process at some stage, realising that you’re not as good at one aspect of the game as you were or that something different is required of you. Craig Casey’s arrival saw the ball cleared much quicker from the breakdown. It’s not a linear argument. If it was then John Cooney is the second best scrumhalf available to Ireland based on performances in the last 18 months and he is perfectly suited to the new style.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan will have a sizable input. Murray is his first choice scrumhalf and Casey has to find a way around him. Munster’s style is different to Ireland’s and that informs selection. At Test level Murray will have to prove, coming off the bench, that he can add value to the way that Ireland are trying to play the game. That’s the challenge, subscribe or be passed out in the pecking order.

It is not Farrell’s job to develop players. That has to be done at provincial level with the national coach enjoying the net benefit. There is no doubt that the player welfare system in Ireland is outstanding but over the past four weeks there is a small group that have undertaken a monumental workload while about 140 players in the provinces who are desperate for game time.

As a country there is less opportunity to pick young players on a weekly basis compared to England and France. In the English Premiership and French Top 14 there are 13 and 14 clubs respectively which means that in some positions and including those on the bench, there might be 26 or 28 outhalves who get game time on a weekly basis.

In Ireland that figure drops to eight and fewer than that across several positions because there are only eight replacements. Quite apart from the overall playing numbers, Fabien Galthié and Eddie Jones can choose young players because they are getting regular game time at elite level and therefore develop more quickly.

I’m trying to think who Ciarán Frawley’s equivalent might be in France or England, someone who will have played two or three matches during this window. Ireland selected more or less a settled team across the three matches. Save for Iain Henderson’s injury, this would have been a long month for Ryan Baird and it was certainly was one for James Hume.

Ireland’s strength in depth is still up for debate. To climb the next mountain, the Six Nations Championship, we will need more than a starting 15, we need players to shout ‘pick me’ in the next two months thereby giving Farrell the confidence to start a Tom O’Toole against Wales or a James Hume against Scotland.

There were bodies starting to creak on Sunday, James Ryan with another HIA, while Henderson (hamstring) and Conan (quad) withdrew before KO. In every series of Test matches you are looking for one or two players to add to the depth chart and that is crucial to Ireland’s future well being.

It was a good Autumn Nations Series for the northern hemisphere countries and reinforces just what a competitive tournament the upcoming Six Nations is going to be. Home games against Scotland and Wales have rarely been easy in recent years while little elaboration is required in outlining how tough it’s going to be travelling to London and Paris.

France will be cock ‘a hoop after their victory over the All Blacks. Eddie Jones said that England have been re-born, his primary concern is where to fit Owen Farrell into a backline when he returns from injury.

It just reinforces how silly it is to reference the 2023 Rugby World Cup when talking about what the Ireland squad has achieved this November. Three excellent victories playing good footy should be lauded for what it is; Farrell, his coaching team and the players will take satisfaction from an excellent series and deserve the kudos thrown their way.

It’s important to pause briefly and enjoy before turning the page and working on the next assignment.

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