By Phil Rice
The 2017/18 season couldn’t have started better for both Ireland and the provincial teams. Three wins from three for Ireland in the Autumn International Series, Leinster and Munster topping their groups in the Champions Cup and Ulster in second place in theirs.
Connacht are also leading their group in the Challenge Cup with a 100% record. Things are nicely poised for an assault on all fronts in 2018.
At the time of writing, the PRO14 has also been a success story with Leinster and Munster both in second place in their conferences, with Ulster third behind Leinster in Conference B. Connacht are fifth in Conference A.
But the New Year frequently proves a turning point for teams as the pressure is applied with conflicting commitments for players between their clubs and the national team.
February and March are dominated by the Six Nations but the PRO14 continues during this period and a team like Leinster will contribute up to 15 players to the Ireland squad. Strength in depth is crucial and Leinster do possess this, but there is a dilution in quality.
So it is a time to retain your position before finishing strongly when your best players return.
Involvement in the European competitions also disrupts the league programme and last season Leinster’s key players were ‘wiped out’ for the crucial concluding matches in the then PRO12.
They underperformed in their semi-final against Scarlets and were running on empty when facing Clermont in the semi-final of the Champions Cup. That experience should help Leo Cullen as he negotiates his way through the concluding weeks of this season when so much will be determined.
There was clearly a sense of anti-climax last season when both Munster and Leinster fell at the final hurdles in both Europe and the PRO12. Head coaches have since admitted that it was very difficult to balance the calls on their key players and that they hope to do better this year.
Munster, Leinster and Ulster have shown themselves to be among the top five teams in the PRO14 this season, along with Glasgow and Scarlets, and it will be a major disappointment if the trophy doesn’t return to the Emerald Isle in April.
This time last season Ireland had just negotiated their way through a demanding Autumn International Series with outstanding wins over New Zealand and Australia in particular. Hopes were high for their assault on the Six Nations with England seen as the main threat to their success.
However, victory over England in their final match was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing tournament. Defeat in their first match in Scotland followed a month later by a poor performance in Cardiff, left their dreams shattered.
They open their campaign in 2018 with a tricky away tie in Paris. They narrowly lost by a point in the corresponding fixture two years ago and both teams will be desperate to start the championship with a win.
Success for Ireland would set them up for home games against Italy, Wales and Scotland. Hopefully they will approach their final game at Twickenham with the opportunity to win the Six Nations, which they last won in 2015.
Injuries to key players always play a big part in the outcome of the Championship and Ireland’s half backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are particularly key to the team’s success.
They have demonstrated at the highest level with the Lions just how crucial their involvement is. While Luke McGrath and Ian Keatley have both been in good form this season, the experience and skill that Murray and Sexton bring to the table is invaluable.
The summer tour to the US and Japan helped to unearth some useful talents for the future. Notably Jacob Stockdale who has had an outstanding season for both Ulster and Ireland. His exceptional strength and speed make him a real threat on the wing.
James Ryan is another player who has stepped up to the plate this year and undoubtedly will feature in the second row for years to come. Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw are developing an excellent midfield combination and with Bundee Aki now available for selection, the centre options are potentially very exciting.
Rob Kearney appears to have regained his mojo and if he avoids injury could make an important contribution this campaign.
The back row is an area of particular strength for Ireland, with Lions players Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander providing a powerful combination. With Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Dan Leavy providing the back-up, there is no shortage of talent in this key area.
Getting off to a winning start in Paris will be crucial to the team’s prospects this year. A victory over France should give Ireland an opportunity to face England on St. Patrick’s Day with the winner taking all.
Key Rugby Dates for 2018
February 3rd – France v Ireland, Paris
February 10th – Ireland v Italy, Dublin
February 23rd – Ireland v Wales, Dublin
March 11th – Ireland v Scotland, Dublin
March 17th – England v Ireland, London
May 11-12th – Finals of Champions/Challenge Cups, Bilbao
May 26th – PRO14 Final, Dublin
June 9th – Australia v Ireland, Brisbane
June 16th – Australia v Ireland, Melbourne
June 23rd – Australia v Ireland, Sydney