It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.
After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.
Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.
In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.
But enough of the wallowing.
Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.
Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.
The west’s awake
After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.
I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.
Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.
Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…
A Christmas Kiss
Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.
Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.
But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.
It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.
Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.
McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.
And then of course, we have the other two.
Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.
In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.
Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.
Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.
From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.
So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.
Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?
Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath
Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls