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New, young Irish faces and success for old pals are on my rugby wish list for 2020

 

Not the end of the world: Ireland can bounce back from Japan disappointment
Not the end of the world: Ireland can bounce back from Japan disappointment
Ronan O’Gara

By Alan Quinlan

In sport, as in life, the start of a new year inevitably triggers an intense spell of reflection before aspirations for the coming 12 months shift the mood.

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An awful lot can happen while the earth completes its orbit of the sun. In rugby terms, consider where we found ourselves 12 months ago; optimism around the international team had reached unprecedented levels on the back of a stellar 2018.

Many were giddy ahead of a 2019 that promised so much, but was largely disappointing, from an international perspective at least. But 2020 gives Irish rugby an opportunity to park those underwhelming 12 months and to plot a path back to prosperity under a new commander.

From a wider perspective, the game, in its many forms, will continue to face challenges that will pry open windows of opportunity.

With that in mind, here is my wish list for the coming year.

INTERNATIONAL

It's easy to get swept away by the 'bounce factor' of new managers in the English Premier League; seeing the likes of Mikel Arteta successfully restructuring Arsenal in terms of tactics and personnel in no time at all. But Ireland's international rugby team doesn't need sweeping changes, the foundations are still there for the side to be successful.

The injection of a few new faces - rewarding players for stand-out provincial form - and adding variety to the attack under Mike Catt should pierce the post-World Cup gloom.

Andy Farrell's priority should still be to win Test matches, not to reinvent the wheel, and that starts on February 1 at home to Scotland.

Ireland's Six Nations ambitions should not plummet on the back of a disappointing World Cup. We need to be realistic, yes, but it is not delusional to suggest Farrell's side are contenders to win another title in the spring.

England are deservedly heavy favourites to win their first Six Nations title since 2017, but if Ireland can win their three home games, one victory on the road - in London or Paris - would put them right in the mix, and that should be the goal - to challenge for the Championship.

Farrell's side will also get a chance to become just the third successful Irish touring party in Australia in June, before an intriguing November rematch against the Wallabies, a chance to take on the world champions, and a shot at revenge against Japan.

Nothing will come easy, but I would hope to see Ireland winning the majority of those games while evolving their game plan and developing some of our brightest young talents.

PROVINCIAL

The lifeblood of the international team remains our provincial game, and to that end it is essential that all four provinces continue to aim high.

Connacht and Munster are up against it to reach the last-eight of the Champions Cup, but the main thing at this point is, unlike several other teams in the competition, their races are not yet run.

At a minimum, I want to see all of the provinces playing knockout rugby of some description this year because those experiences are worth their weight in gold when it comes to dealing with clutch moments on the international stage.

Munster will always have a special place in my heart, so I would love to see them win a first trophy since 2011.

The fans and players are ravenous for success at this stage. Europe may be beyond them this season, but I want to see a big challenge mounted for PRO14 honours.

OVERSEAS

My Munster bias doesn't just sway my hopes within Ireland, but across Europe as well these days.

Having such good friends working abroad - such as Racing 92 attack coach Mike Prendergast and Ronan O'Gara stationed as La Rochelle's head honcho - naturally has me hoping their sides will prosper in 2020 too.

I would love to see Prendy win a Top 14 title with Racing. He has taken the back roads to the coaching elite and is already making a big impact with the Paris giants, where my former team-mates Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan are also of course plying their trade.

Prendy and ROG would both like to return home one day, so either or both sampling success in France would also be beneficial for Irish rugby in the long run.

There are a vast number of Irish coaches in England too, but considering the scandalous last few months across the pond, shedding light on the unfair playing field that existed for the previous three seasons, it would be fitting if Exeter Chiefs were crowned champions this year after being denied by Saracens in the past two deciders.

REFEREEING

The carnage at the breakdown and chaos around the maul both need urgent attention, for the betterment of player welfare and the game as a spectacle.

Side-entries were rampant at the World Cup and that concerning trend has continued in the PRO14 and Champions Cup. Players are being taken out, dangerously, when attempting to poach the ball and it has to stop.

As for the maul, unless it is policed better I fear it will be redundant in the not too distant future, the exception probably being from five-metre lineouts. That would be a great loss to the game; it has been a valuable weapon in the sport for so long and when used properly creates the space in the defensive line that we are all crying out for.

It has become too risky to maul from your own half because those defending it, often three or four at a time, are not getting pinged for being offside.

Refereeing this sport is complex at the best of times and the maul and breakdown have so many moving parts it's impossible for one pair of human eyes to see every offence being committed.

Giving the assistant referees more scope to interject in those scenarios would help tidy up the game.

OPEN TO CHANGE

As I have previously mentioned, the idea of a British and Irish league excites me, so in 2020 I would like to see some serious discussions take place between the relevant stakeholders.

There are too many one-sided games in the PRO14 and Europe, and in such a competitive TV market rugby cannot afford to react too late.

A British and Irish league could inject fresh energy into club rugby in the northern hemisphere, guaranteeing frontline players more competitive games.

I'm not sure if it will happen, but I would like to see it seriously considered.

LUCK TO TURN

There are many players who deserve to catch a break after a rotten run with injury, but two who stand out are Joey Carbery and Dan Leavy.

They are two of the most exciting young talents on this island, the type of players who Ireland teams may be built around for years to come, so it would be an awful shame to see either of them suffer any more setbacks this year.

I had my fair share of serious injuries, I know the kind of dark places they can bring you to, so I would hope that Leavy and Carbery can get back to their best over the next 12 months and put their fitness issues behind them.

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