By Phil Rice
The Irish rugby team entered 2017 as second favourites for the Six Nations following a successful autumn campaign which memorably included a first-ever victory over New Zealand, and a fine win over Australia.
Hopes were high but were quickly brought down to earth with defeat away to Scotland. It was a clear case of underestimating a rejuvenated Scottish side who have gone on to have a successful year since.
A resounding 10-63 win away to Italy was followed by a comfortable 19-9 victory over France in Dublin.
With the show back on the road and a realistic opportunity to win the Six Nations still in place, a poor defeat away to a very motivated Welsh side, dashed all hope of the championship.
To complete a topsy-turvy season Ireland then beat England, who were defending a 19-match winning streak, to deny Eddie Jones’ side the Grand Slam.
This was a rousing performance from the team, with some outstanding individual efforts, as they won 13-9 in Dublin.
Peter O’Mahony was drafted into the team for the game at the last moment when Jamie Heaslip failed a fitness test and after a man of the match performance the next international match he played was as captain of the Lions against the All Blacks. Some turnaround to his season.
On the back of the win against the ‘Ould Enemy” 11 Irish players were included in the Lions squad, seven of them were involved in the drawn Test series.
Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, in particular, enhanced their reputations during the series, with all four proving to be world class performers.
A successful summer tour to USA and Japan for the Irish team, gave Joe Schmidt an opportunity to evaluate the candidates for the next generation of international players.
Some stood out notably. Jacob Stockdale, who has gone on to enhance his reputation this autumn, second-row James Ryan, who certainly looks the part in a position which Ireland are in need of fresh faces, and Dan Leavy, who has struggled with injury since the summer.
The recently completed Autumn International Series was a 100 per cent success, including a notable record 38-3 victory over South Africa.
In recent years Ireland have promised much in the autumn, but then haven’t really lived up to expectations in the following Six Nations campaign.
The 2018 championship will begin with an away fixture in Paris. A winning start could propel them to a successful campaign with the concluding match away to a revenge-seeking England, on St. Patrick’s Day, quite likely to be decisive in deciding the destiny of the trophy.
The provinces have generally had a successful year with Munster and Leinster achieving the most, but in European and Pro12 competition both narrowly lost out in the concluding stages.
Both teams reached the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup but were defeated by eventual winners Saracens in the case of Munster and a narrow defeat to Clermont in Leinster’s case.
The Irish sides have fared well in the current season’s competition with Leinster topping a very strong group and Munster leading the way in their group also. Ulster have a fighting chance of making the knock out stages with successive victories over Harlequins in the last two weeks.
Connacht are riding high in the Challenge Cup with four victories and can realistically be considered among the favourites for that competition.
In last season’s Pro12 Munster reached the final but were surprisingly beaten by team of the year, Scarlets, for whom ex-Leinster second-row Tadhg Beirne played a starring role. Scarlets had already dumped a disappointing Leinster out of the competition in the semi-final.
Connacht were always going to struggle to repeat the heroics of the previous season, when they remarkably won the league, but they finished in a creditable mid-table position.
Ulster promised much but were unlucky to miss the play-offs by one point. They led the league after two months but struggled to replace players with sufficient quality when injuries and international calls depleted the squad.
The league has been revamped this season and the new ‘Pro14’ with two South African sides added, has so far gone well for the Irish teams.
Munster and Leinster are both lying second in their conferences, while Ulster are third behind Leinster in conference B.
Connacht are fifth in conference A and will need an exceptional second half to the season if they are to qualify for the play-offs.
There is a confidence in the air in Irish rugby circles at present with a feeling that a successful Six Nations competition may be around the corner.
Optimism is tempered by last season’s experience but it would be no surprise if Ireland went to Twickenham in March with a realistic chance of winning the Six Nations Championship.