By Phil Rice
After the dust has settled on a quite outstanding season for Irish rugby, it is worth reflecting on how far the Ireland team has come in the past 12 months.
This time last season, despite celebrating a fine one-off victory over England, there was considerable disappointment after defeats at the hands of Scotland and Wales, and the failure of the provinces to win silverware.
Wind the clock forward and Irish rugby is basking in a 12-match unbeaten run and a Grand Slam by Joe Schmidt’s men, and a Champions Cup and Pro14 double for Leinster.
Ireland is the strongest rugby nation in the Northern Hemisphere at present.
What has changed in one year? Probably not as much as it appears. Firstly, Ireland were in a better place last season than probably thought at the time. Victory over England hinted that there wasn’t that much wrong with what Ireland were trying to do.
Some outstanding contributions to the Lion’s tour from its best players gave Ireland added self-belief that was needed. A substantial victory over South Africa in the autumn reinforced that confidence.
Heat of battle
A last-gasp victory over France in Ireland’s Six Nations opener propelled the team forward with the belief that it could remain calm and in control in the heat of battle. Johnny Sexton has been immense during 2018 for both club and country.
Other key players who grew in confidence during the Lions tour, such as Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson, have all made significant contributions this season.
Added to that has been the introduction of some genuinely talented newcomers. Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Dan Leavy have made spectacular strides in their maiden season at international level.
Leinster have been outstanding throughout the season. Much credit must go to the management team, with Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster particularly deserving of praise. Lessons were learned from last season’s short-comings, and clever acquisitions have also contributed.
Scott Fardy and James Lowe especially have made telling contributions, frequently winning man of the match awards.
The loss of Jamie Heaslip, and minimal game time due to injury for Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, deprived Leinster of their first choice back-row from last season, but with Leavy, Jack Conan, a rejuvenated Jordi Murphy and the emergence of Max Deegan, the province have more than compensated.
The steely determination that the province showed during those final six weeks of gruelling matches spoke volumes about the character of the side and the lessons learned from last season’s failures. Sexton’s contribution cannot be overstated, as a player and as a manager and motivator.
He is in the last few years of his career and consideration must be made surrounding his replacement. Joey Carbery is a talented player who needs to spend more time developing his career at flyhalf.
He has agreed to join Munster for next season at the instigation of Joe Schmidt and although Munster now have four fly-halves who aspire to be first choice, the national team would certainly benefit from Carbery getting more game time at ten.
Given the huge contribution Jordi Murphy made to Leinster’s success, particularly during those final six weeks, he will be a significant loss when he moves to Ulster next season. Again the benefit will be to his new province and hopefully Ireland, when he gains a regular position on the flank for Ulster.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) June 6, 2018
Although both Robbie Henshaw and Iain Henderson were selected in the Australian touring party, significant doubt surrounds their involvement due to long-term injuries.
In the case of Henshaw a leg injury picked up in the Champions Cup final has taken longer than expected to heal. Should he fail to recover in time the centre combination that played in the Grand Slam match against England, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose would continue.
In the case of Henderson, the introduction of Tadhg Beirne could prove timely and it is likely that Joe Schmidt would want to give the ‘new Munsterman’ a run out anyway.
This will be a close fought series with Australia. The teams are in the final straight leading up to the 2019 World Cup. The importance of results and performances are magnified. Ireland are enjoying a 12-match unbeaten run and Schmidt would love to extend that record.
1st Test Australia v Ireland
Saturday 9th June
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, KO 11am
2nd Test Australia v Ireland
Saturday 16th June
AAMI Park, Melbourne, KO 11am
3rd Test Australia v Ireland
Saturday 23rd June
Allianz Stadium, Sydney, KO 11am
Forwards: Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Can Healy, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Dan Leavy, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, James Ryan, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, CJ Stander, Devin Toner.
Backs: Bundee Aki, Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, John Cooney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Kieran Marmion, Conor Murray, Garry Ringrose, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale.
Head to Head
Since 1927 Australia and Ireland have played against each other on 33 occasions. Australia have won 21, Ireland have won 11 and there has been one draw.
Since 1999 the two counties compete for the Lansdowne Cup every time they play. The Waterford Crystal trophy was donated to the Australian Rugby Union in 1999, by the Lansdowne club of Sydney. Since it’s inauguration the record stands at, Australia eight wins to Ireland’s four, with one draw.
Last Five Matches
26th June 2010, Brisbane
Australia 22, Ireland 15
Five penalties by Johnny Sexton provided Ireland’s points, while Luke Burgess and Quade Cooper scored converted tries for Australia, Cooper adding two penalties.
17th September 2011 (World Cup) Auckland
Ireland 15, Australia 6
One of Ireland’s finest World Cup performances, against a much-fancied Australian side. Two penalties each for Sexton and O’Gara, with Sexton adding a drop goal. James O’Connor landed two penalties for Australia. Ireland lost in the quarter finals to Wales, while Australia beat Wales in the third-place play-off.
16th November 2013, Dublin
Australia 32, Ireland 15
Disappointing performance from Ireland, 4 penalties from Sexton and 1 from Madigan. Australia scored 4 tries, 2 from Hooper 1 each from Cummins and Cooper, with 3 conversions and 2 penalties from Cooper.
22nd November 2014, Dublin
Ireland 26, Australia 23
Ireland completed an Autumn series clean-sweep as Joe Schmidt began his reign as Head Coach. Zebo and Bowe scored tries both converted by Sexton, who added four penalties. Phipps scored twice for Australia, Foley added a third and kicked eight points.
26th November 2016, Dublin
Ireland 27, Australia 24
One of the best matches seen at the Aviva, Ireland had recently beaten the All Blacks and confidence was high. Henderson, Ringrose and Earls scored tries while Jackson converted all three and added two penalties. Haylett-Petty, Kuridrani and Naivalu scored tries for Australia, Foley converted all three and added a penalty.