2013 was far from a vintage year for Ireland.
Declan Kidney paid the price for a disappointing Six Nations campaign which included defeats in Edinburgh and Rome. Joe Schmidt was chosen as the man to revitalise a luckless squad, but in the interim Les Kiss would lead Ireland on a summer tour of North America where the results were positive and a few young guns were given an opportunity to impress.
Joe Schmidt’s baptism in the autumn started well, with a five try rout of Samoa, but ended in heartbreak with the Irish cruelly denied a first ever victory over the all conquering All Blacks courtesy of Ryan Crotty’s injury-time try levelling the scores and Aaron Cruden landing the winning conversation at the second time of asking. Sandwiched between was a hugely disappointing defeat by Australia.
What can be qualified as success? Nothing that this Ireland squad has achieved in 2013 can really be marked as a success; this group are too talented, too ambitious, and too used to winning. There were occasional glimmers of light, glimpses of what this squad are capable of, which included an opening weekend Six Nations win over the eventual champions Wales, a draw against France, and the best 78 minutes of rugby Ireland have ever played against the All Blacks.
They lacked consistency though, and for that reason I look elsewhere, away from the senior squad, for Ireland’s greatest success of 2013.
It was the women who stole the show in 2013 with a first ever Grand Slam. It was sealed in Italy, appropriately enough on St Patrick’s Day, with a gritty fifth championship win of the campaign. It was a great achievement for Captain Fiona Coghlan and the girls, who along the way whitewashed England in a historic 25-0 win.
Ireland’s first Six Nations defeat at the hands of the Azzurri was an obvious disappointment, and a final blow to Declan Kidney’s hopes of landing a new contract beyond this year after two lacklustre performances against Scotland and England. The manner of defeat against Australia and the apparent gulf in quality on that day was also concerning.
However, by far the most disheartening moment of the year came a week later when Crotty crossed at the death and denied Ireland a glorious and deserved victory against the All Blacks. A gripped nation was stunned to silence, and instead of what could have been one of the biggest parties Irish rugby has ever seen an immediate gloom descended over the Aviva, Dublin, Belfast and Limerick. It was impossible to avoid.
It was a couple of days before the despair lifted, but Joe Schmidt will hope to reignite the fire that burned within his team that day. There are definitely positives to be taken from that heart wrenching defeat, not least the knowledge that finding consistency somewhere close to that performance will yield positive results for Ireland, but in that initial moment there was no greater disappointment in 2013. Brutal.
Player of the year
In a time when an exodus of Irish players is rumoured, following the example of Sexton, it is worrying that the signature of Ireland’s player of the year, Sean O’Brien, has yet to be announced. O’Brien’s trademarks are his brute strength and powerful acceleration but he’s added more subtle qualities to his game recently too. The interest shown in O’Brien is a reflection of his form for both province and country over the last 18 months. It is essential that the IRFU keep him playing in Ireland. The ‘Tullow Tank’ is simply irreplaceable in Ireland’s back row.
O’Brien’s consistency over the course of the year stands out because most of the players scratched around for form. When he takes to the field there is no more devastating ball carrier in the squad and his sharpness at the breakdown seems to improve with each cap. The Wallabies rightly identified him as Ireland’s main threat in the autumn and did well to nullify his game, but undeterred O’Brien came back with a huge game against New Zealand going head to head against the greatest seven of all time and winning.
Emerging player of the year
There’s no shortage of talented young backs in Ireland. To single out a few around the provincial sides, Robbie Henshaw and Keiran Marmion (Connacht), Dave Kearney (Leinster) and JJ Hanrahan (Munster) are all good prospects, but it’s at the Ulster academy where the production line has been most fruitful. Messrs Jackson, Gilroy, and the surprise of 2013 Stuart Olding have all been capped since last autumn.
However, of those most recently making the breakthrough, it is Luke Marshall who has settled into international rugby best and looks set to cement a regular place in the Ireland midfield in 2014. Marshall possesses a range of qualities perfectly complemented by the right attitude. His distribution skills, undoubtedly picked up from starting his rugby education as a fly-half, provide Ireland with a threat to unlock defences. He’s also exceptionally strong and incredibly brave, giving Ireland two options, to take the direct route or put width on the ball.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Marshall’s emergence is that he does so with Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll still around to show him the ropes. A rejuvenated D’Arcy in particular is the perfect mentor, and with the long serving Leinster centre finding form in the autumn it can only be good for Ireland if these two provide healthy competition going into 2014.
What to expect in 2014
There was evidence of Joe Schmidt’s fingerprints on Ireland’s performances this autumn, but truthfully we never would have expected to see a true mark of his changes until the Six Nations. The New Zealand performance demonstrated exactly what Ireland can achieve in the upcoming championships. A benchmark has been set.
Schmidt has made it a priority to develop a squad of 30 to 35 players experienced and capable at international level. That process has started well with positive individual performances. Devin Toner, Declan Fitzpatrick, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Dave Kearney were amongst those who will emerge from 2013 with their reputations enhanced.
Three home wins are essential in the Six Nations, away victories against either England or France would be a bonus but not beyond the capabilities of this squad.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images