Irish Rugby's Rebuild: From World Cup Loss To Guinness Six Nations Promise
Irish Rugby's Rebuild: From World Cup Loss To Guinness Six Nations Promise
Irish Rugby's journey from World Cup heartache to Six Nations hope, rebuilding after a tough loss, with new stars and legendary departures.
As American author Zig Zilar once wrote, “Disappointment is a temporary detour on the road to success.”
For Irish Rugby, the deflation from its four-point Rugby World Cup quarterfinal loss to New Zealand remains a brutal reality that stings, unlike any disappointment that came before it.
Entering the contest as the No. 1-ranked team in the world, fresh off a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand and on a run of seventeen consecutive victories, it was not meant to end like that for Andy Farrell’s men.
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Alas, there is a key reason why the All Blacks have for so long been the cream of the crop in the rugby world.
On that fateful night in Paris, Farrell’s charges came within a bounce of a ball of progressing, but they were outdone by a savvy Kiwi side that simply had been there and done that on the game’s grandest stage.
Thus, four months on from that night in Paris, the Irish rebuild will begin in a rather poetic manner in the country that brought a close to the last chapter.
Swapping the narrow streets of Paris for the port city of Marseille, the Grand Slam champions will face a French team that also knows the pain of World Cup disappointment.
Last Time Out
Securing a fourth Grand Slam, Ireland swept all challengers with relative ease in 2023.
Starting the campaign in Cardiff, Ireland bullied the Welsh in their own home.
While the struggles in Welsh Rugby are well documented, Warren Gatland and his charges routinely have inflicted pain on more fancied Irish opposition. For Farrell’s side, a 34 – 10 bonus-point win was a statement result in Round 1 and set the stage for what likely would be the Grand Slam decider in Round 2 again, Les Bleus.
Though tense for the bulk of the contest, a 32-19 bonus point win while limiting the French to a single try, cemented the thought that Ireland was the in-form team in European Rugby. On that day in Dublin, Ireland moved the giant French pack around with an up-tempo attacking game that had their visitors out on their feet.
Vanquishing their biggest title rivals so early in the Championship seemingly freed any pre-competition shackles, as Ireland trounced Italy 34-20, before doing what they have done routinely over the past 20 years in man-handling Scotland 22-7 in Round 4.
These two results set up a pressure cooker clash in Round 5 on St Patrick’s weekend in Dublin against the old enemies England.
As ever, England came looking to disrupt the Irish flow with a physical edge that has been the hallmark of English rugby since Day 1. In the end, it wouldn’t be enough, as Ireland secured its fourth bonus-point win of the Championship in a 29-16 victory.
Bidding adieu to iconic players Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls in terms of the Six Nations in the best possible manner, in front of the Irish people, felt like a scene straight out of a Hollywood script.
The King is dead, long live the king… Well not quite.
For Ireland, there never has been a more influential player than Johnny Sexton. The fly-half kingpin was Ireland’s general since 2011 and bossed the men in green around the park with an authority, unlike any other in the game’s history.
In addition to directing play on the pitch, Sexton was standard driver off it and dragged Irish Rugby to the top of the mountain with him.
How one replaces a player and more crucial a leader of this quality is a question only time can answer. In Andy Farrell, Ireland has a coach with the authority, respect and wherewithal to guide this brave new world for Irish Rugby.
On the pitch, Munster’s Jack Crowley is the heir apparent, and he has the full box of tricks and, more crucially, the temperament to be a world-class No. 10.
Landing a match-winning drop goal in last year’s United Rugby Championship semifinal, before guiding his team to the title two weeks later, the former Bandon Grammar student is the real deal. This does not mean he has a carte blanche on the position, with the likes of the Byrne brothers Ross and Harry, Ciaran Frawley and young Sam Prendergast all willing and able competitors for the role.
While Crowley might not be the most influential player in what is an immensely experienced and talented squad, he is the key player this season.
Should he flourish as the main man, there is a very real chance Ireland could secure the its first back-to-back Grand Slam titles. On the flipside, should there be growing pains, then expect a slightly less-than-fluid showing from the Irish attack.
One thing is for certain - Crowley has the aptitude and will get to prove this in the hostile arenas of Marseille and London in the coming months.
Potential Breakthrough Star
Unlike the other five squads in the championship, Ireland has no real debutants on its roster.
Listing three uncapped players in a “training panel," Farrell will look to integrate Sam Prendergast, Oli Jager and Tom Ahern (should he return from injury) into the nuances of the national setup.
Taking this into account, while he broke onto the scene last season, powerhouse secondrow Joe McCarthy has the potential to take this season’s championship by storm.
At 6-foot-six and 130kg, McCarthy is unlike any prospect Irish Rugby has produced in its history.
In layman’s terms, the 22-year-old is an enforcer and a menace who wrecks shop on the opposition ball with immense physicality at the contact point. In attack, his subtle footwork and soft hands combine with his rampaging power-carrying game to produce a well-rounded modern lock seemingly cut from the mold of Springbok icon Eben Etzebeth.
High praise indeed for a player, who at the time of this writing, merely is on the first step of what many believe will be a long and fruitful career.
Round 1 against a gargantuan French pack could be his coming-out party as a true force and undeniable contributor for the men in green going forward.
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Toughest Fixture - England Away
Popular opinion would be that Ireland's toughest fixture would be a Round 1 away meeting with France, and in truth, there is a very strong argument for this.
Yet, without the likes of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Emmanuel Meafou, and Anthony Jelonch, this French team, while still magnificent, is not the force it could be when all of its cards are on the table.
On the other hand, England looks to be a side with a raft of young talent coming through. While Steve Borthwick’s side was by and large uninspiring last year, they did manage to reach the semifinals of the World Cup.
While several experienced heads have since departed, this squad still has several players who have played at the highest level and, as touched upon above, a young nucleus of immensely talented players.
Facing off in Round 4 at Twickenham, England will not be a pushover and will be looking to make a true statement that it is back as a force following a handful of down seasons.
Before a ball has been kicked, one would list Ireland as a slight favorite, but the picture could be vastly different come their March kickoff.
In stark contradiction to many, this writer believes Ireland has a real chance to turn over a hurting and heavily rotated French side in Round 1. A win here, and the Grand Slam would be very much on, with the aforementioned clash at Twickenham likely to be the toughest of the remaining fixtures.
Certainly, Scotland, Wales and Italy are not to be taken lightly, but history, as ever, is instructive.
Despite its undeniable improvement, Scotland has beaten Ireland once in a blue moon over the past two decades, while outside of one shock over a decade ago, Italy has never beaten the men in green.
Wales, in normal circumstances, would be the Irish kryptonite, but they just don’t have the squad this season to match Ireland.
Ireland will be title contender this season, but whether it is a Grand Slam year, is difficult to gauge. From the outset, it is tricky to see any team going undefeated, but Farrell’s men and Fabien Galthie’s Les Bleus are the two sides that would seem the most likely to do so.
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