Now that Ireland have proven their worth by winning a Grand Slam, the question must be asked, can they go further?
Is there more success left in this Irish team? I for one believe there is still a lot left for this squad to achieve.
Ireland are now ranked no.2 in the latest rankings and looking back over the last 18 months or so, this has been achieved by recording a string of victories against top opposition. Namely, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England (twice), France (twice), Scotland, Wales & Argentina. They have quite literally beaten every single team in the top 10 rankings in the last year and a half.
Strength in depth
While they have also had some losses (New Zealand, Scotland & Wales), this run of results has been achieved while developing a strength in depth that Ireland has never enjoyed before. A quick comparison between the Irish team that faces the All Blacks twice in Nov 2016 and the team that started against England in Twickenham shows that Ireland have successfully replaced 2/3 of their team. From the team that started against the All Blacks in Soldier Field only Best, Furlong, Stander, Murray, Sexton & Kearney started against England and Furlong is still a novice.
This is a direct result of some very good planning by Joe Schmidt and his team. After winning back-to-back 6 Nations titles in the run-up to the RWC 2015, much was expected from the Irish, only for them to fail badly against Argentina. This is where their lack of squad depth was glaringly obvious. By putting a priority on developing young, homegrown players within the provincial system and giving them a chance at the top level, not only has strength in depth been achieved but also some genuine young talent has been uncovered.
New to the system
Bundee Aki & CJ Stander have both become available for selection with immediate success. Furlong, Ryan, Leavy & Porter have bolstered an already solid pack even more. With Furlong already being rated as the best prop in the world and Ryan after having a colossal 1st 6 Nations in the 2nd row. Cian Healy is after regaining his no. 1 Shirt. Along with Peter O´Mahony in the form of his life at 6 and Best captaining from Hooker, Ireland now have a genuine mix of youth & experience in the pack. Every position is covered. Another bonus is the likely inclusion of Tadgh Byrne next year when his move from Scarlets to Munster is finalised.
The changes behind the pack are even more impressive with an all-new 3/4 line. Stockdale has been a revelation. Nobody could have foreseen the impact he has made since being introduced for the now unavailable Zebo. He has now scored 11 tries in 9 international games which is an unbelievable record. On the other wing, Keith Earls is also enjoying a fine run of form. He brings the experience that Stockdale is missing. His bravery in demanding and winning that cross-field kick from Sexton against the French remains for me THE single play of the tournament. Cover for these two remains my only concern. I am not convinced by either McFadden or Sweetnam and I would prefer to see Conway at Fullback.
The Irish centre has been thoroughly tested during this 6 Nations. Payne is unavailable. Ringrose got injured as did Henshaw & Farrell which meant that Bundee Aki, as a rookie, was the only ever-present centre until he also had to leave the field. A lot has been made of Ireland´s weakness defending out wide. I think it is inevitable not to have a weakness somewhere when you are forced to play a new centre pairing every week.
Murray at 9 has no peers, Sexton at 10 is a class act and Kearney at 15 is Mr Dependable. Larmour & Conway provide good cover at fullback. I also have confidence in both Marmion and McGrath at 9, although there is a drop in quality behind Murray due to the latter´s sheer excellence.
The same applies at 10. There is a huge gap behind Sexton. A lot of this is due to the unfortunate episode with Paddy Jackson. Carberry needs to play at out-half on a regular basis and Ian Keatley, for all his honesty is out of his depth internationally. A possible bolter here could be Bleyendaal who showed true glimpses of greatness in Munster´s run to the European Semi Final last year and who will become available for selection before the November series. Schmidt has invited him to Irish camp already so he obviously thinks highly of him.
All in all pretty rosy times for Ireland. The most important thing now is not to stagnate. The return of players such as Sean O`Brien, Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier, coupled with the inclusion of Tadhg Beirne should provide even more competition for places. I hope Joe Schmidt gives the older players like Best, Healy, Sexton & Kearney a break for the Australia tour and lets the younger lads have a go.
This may lead to some adverse results but in the long run might prove just as beneficial to the team as the disappointing results in the 2016 & 2017 6 Nations.
Author: Pearse O`Donnell