Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

First job is done for Ireland rugby, now let's tackle the world

Schmidt has know-how and players to take next giant step

World woes: Ireland hit a low point as they exited 2011's World Cup after losing to Wales
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt

We all know what happened post Grand Slam 2009 or to put it another way the seeds of that success were never nurtured. Irish rugby did not go into terminal decline but what we hoped would spark a new era of success – most particularly at international level – never materialised.

The period that followed did embrace what I believe to be the greatest single victory for Irish rugby ever when we turned over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. It surpassed Cardiff '09 or, with respect to the heroes of Ravenhill '48, what was achieved on both special Grand Slam occasions. It did so because of its context.

Here was a World Cup Pool decider against southern hemisphere opposition on southern hemisphere soil (New Zealand) and with both nations going for a quarter-final slot hell for leather.

The Five/Six Nations continues the jewel in the crown for northern hemisphere rugby but at the end of the day it is just that; a competition confined to the European elite.

The Big three (with six of the seven world cups played to date annexed between them) only come into serious competition (with respect to the Autumn and June internationals) every four years.

The Rugby World Cup is now the ultimate barometer to global rugby. IRB rankings have an ongoing relevance but only as a means to an end when the Webb Ellis Cup comes around.

Right now we are ranked fifth behind the Sanzar nations and England and that is just about right. We are still the only one of the so-called Home Unions still to make the last four at a World Cup. Even the beleaguered Scots achieved that at RWC '91.

Despite the manner of that win over the Wallabies we blew it when under firing badly against the Welsh in the last eight. To describe that group as chokers would be as unfair as it is untrue but certainly in terms of consistency of performance we are still fighting our way in that regard.

To that end Joe Schmidt's emphasis from day one in the job has been on achieving just that precious component.

His stated mission is in consistency of performance thereby leaving results to look after themselves. It is a simple proposition, easier said than done.

Already, in his second game in charge (ironically against the Wallabies), we returned to old ways and with it a flat, sub-standard performance but since that, beginning with that heart breaking loss at the death to the Kiwis, we have performed consistently thereby ensuring we are now very real competitors in every game we play.

We came up short against a better equipped English side at Twickenham but still took the bottom line result that day right to the wire. To that end what was achieved at the Stade de France and over this Test season as a whole has been important for three critical reasons.

1. We arrived in Paris as favourites and carried that mantle in what has long been our traditional graveyard with relative comfort.

2. We backed up recent success at Celtic (Pro12) and Heineken Cup (European) with silverware at the highest level in the northern hemisphere game.

3. But more than anything we played consistently to the maximum of our ability (including New Zealand and England) and that has been the biggest step of all in the quest to become a major player at the top table and beginning in England 2015.

So as Brian O'Driscoll takes his leave from the game he has graced for so long he leaves it in pretty good nick. We are a long way still from the finished article but as a work in progress (and work is the operative word) we are right up there.

Some 29 players were selected by Schmid in his match day squads throughout the successful campaign just ended. They included Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Marshall, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Marty Moore, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell, Dan Tuohy, Ian Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O'Mahony, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip.

Let us leave every single one on that list aside on the hypothetical premise they are unavailable to tour Argentina (bearing in mind that as of now the number 13 is the only one who is) and trawl through the following names; Felix Jones, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Ian Keatley, Kieran Marmion, Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Rodney Ah You (now in the mix), Declan Fitzpatrick, Stephen Archer, Richardt Strauss, Damien Varley, Mike Sherry, Dave Foley, Mike McCarthy, Donnacha Ryan, Robbie Diack, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Kevin McLaughlin, Robin Copeland, Roger Wilson and James Coughlan.

That is another 30 and I dare suggest you could pick a fair starting XV from this latter grouping.

Almost 60 players providing (even allowing for the inevitable injury toll which comes with the territory) what seems to me the biggest squad ever in terms of Test playing ability to wear the green. Replacing the irreplaceable at outside centre is not going to be easy but even at this distance it looks like at least two top quality alternatives competing for EVERY position and that is unprecedented in Irish rugby.

We'll not be losing the run of ourselves that's for sure but with our own big three in the last eight of the Heineken Cup and at the same time filling positions one (Leinster), two (Munster) and three (Ulster) in the Pro12 League (a full eight points ahead of the Ospreys in fourth) and with Connacht coming up on the rails making sixth (ahead of the Scarlets) a very real aspiration I think it fair to highlight Irish rugby in a pretty good place.

It is still a sad joke (on all of us) that we are not on the IRB Sevens circuit but in most other respects the IRFU can take a well earned bow and then like its head coach get back on the job.

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