2014 A Year To Remember For Irish Rugby
2014 will live long in the memory of all those associated with Irish rugby. It was the year BOD finally hung up his boots, Schmidt settled into his role and steered Ireland to Six Nations glory and new faces emerged on the Irish scene to propel the men in green to third in the World Rugby rankings. Lets take a look at what was a memorable year.
The year began with a bitter taste in the mouth. What could have been? A packed Aviva stadium witnessed one of the most complete performances of any Irish side for a long time, and against the world champions. That isn’t right. Had the clock stopped on 78 minutes we would have seen history rewritten, an Irish victory over the All Blacks for the very first time. But such is the cutthroat nature of professional sport that this wasn’t to be. Ryan Crotty and co. dashed the Irish dream and prolonged Irelands search for that elusive first victory.
So on to 2014, buoyed by a quality display but sickened by the eventual outcome an air of optimism hovered above the Irish team as they approached their first Six Nations under Joe Schmidt, the golden coach of Irish rugby. The man who enjoyed un-paralleled success with Leinster now took the reins for his first competitive competition with Ireland.
First through the gates was Scotland. Preparation was disrupted by the absence of talismanic captain Paul O’Connell with a chest infection. Ireland stuck to their task but it wasn’t until the second half that they pulled away and recorded the victory. A three tries to nil win and ending the round on top of the table, not a bad start.
The return of PO’C and D’Arcy to the starting team saw Ireland enjoy home comforts again as they welcomed the Welsh. Irish fans arrived at the stadium expectant of at least the same standard Ireland reached in the second half the week before. What they were treated to was a terrific display and a dominant performance against a very good Welsh side. Sexton showed how crucial he is to this Irish side with an influential display. Ireland executed Schmidt’s tactical approach to a tee and bullied the opposition off the park. A 26-3 score line at full time was fully deserved.
Two down and two wins under the belt, the momentum was starting to build.
A week off allowed Ireland rest weary bodies after two hugely physical encounters. Minds now focused on the mammoth task of England in Twickenham. Under Lancaster England has become a quality outfit. Now a more likeable side compared to that assembled under the doomed tenure of one Martin Johnson. Danny Care broke Irish hearts and the chance of a Grand Slam and Triple Crown as England ground out a 13-10 narrow victory. Ireland had what looked like a commanding 10-3 lead at one stage but credit the English, they don’t know when their beaten and dragged themselves back into it to see them over the line.
The result meant a three horse race was now established with Ireland in a shoot out with France and England for the title.
Next up saw Ireland host the Italians. The game proved to be of secondary importance as the Aviva crowd said fair well to BOD for the last time. A seven-try win meant job done for the Irish. The day will forever be remembered for the gigantic poster of O’Driscoll erected in the middle of the pitch as the Leinster man paraded around with daughter Sadie in his arms, a fitting tribute to the great man.
France and England did their bit in Round 4 to set up a wonderful final day. France in the Stade de France, a pretty daunting prospect on a normal day, but to go there with a championship on the line created immense pressure. The French hadn’t been anywhere near top gear, as is the case with them under Saint-André. To come from behind twice and out score your opponents three tries to two is befitting of any championship winning side and that is exactly what Ireland did. However, it took a forward pass from Pascal Papé to deny a reinvigorated French side the win and see Ireland crowned champions. BOD was awarded Man of the Match as Joe Schmidt said he didn’t know if he could last too long in the job with drama like that. Schmidt had dispelled to ancient history the largly disappointing Irish performances under Kidney after that historic Grand Slam and had returned from Paris with the Six Nations trophy in hand.
And so on to the summer tour. Six Nations trophy safely tucked away it was time to travel down to South America to face Argentina in a two test series. There is something about traveling to Argentina that does not have the same furor as a trip to one of the big three. Coverage doesn’t seem to be as good and the event is a bit lacking. Ireland made the trip with a number of front line players rested, although Sexton and O’Connell were on the plane. Two wins from two against a questionable looking ‘Argies’ side meant job done. The real bonus for Schmidt was the number of debuts he was allowed to hand out. Kieran Marmion, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, James Cronin, Noel Reid and Rob Herring all appeared for the first time in green. The tour success meant Schmidt and his backroom staff could settle into a well-earned rest knowing the 2013/14 season was a huge success.
Before too long it was back in full swing for the autumn internationals. The season for the provincial sides started with a bang. New man at Munster Anthony Foley had to contend with a leaked email, which contained delicate information about his players perceived abilities. Ulster welcomed Neil Doak into the fray as head coach to replace Les Kiss for the time being. Mils Muliaina joined the party at Connacht as the men from the west enjoyed a new lease of life. Leinster stuttered and underwhelmed, as fans became inpatient with the style and standard of play in the post Schmidt era.
All this was put to one side as the Aviva played host to the South Africans, Georgians and Wallabies. Two huge tests with a glorified Ireland ‘A’ fixture sandwiched in the middle. Simon Easterby joined the backroom staff as forwards coach as John Plumtree departed for home.
Heyneke Meyer and his world beating ‘Boks were first up. The chatter before the game spoke of a dominant South African pack and a newfound flair in the backs. Not many people taught Ireland would be able to live with the new look ‘Boks side. But live with them they did. Ireland was clinical throughout. Last minute stand in Rhys Ruddock and returning Tommy Bowe crossed the line as the superb Jonny Sexton conducted the orchestra to a tee. The results was a 29-15 win over a side that, did what Ireland couldn’t do the previous year and, toppled the All Blacks only weeks before. A marker was set down with this win. The world really began to take notice and whispers could be heard of a real challenge in next years world cup.
The Georgians were next up. This fixture would offer little other than an opportunity for the extended squad to have a hit out and experience the Aviva atmosphere. Georgia was never going to push an Irish side under the direction of Joe Schmidt as close as they did in the WC in 2007. I would question the validity of this fixture with less than twelve months to go until the next World Cup, but for the sake of the game and giving opportunities for lesser nations to break into the upper tier, it is a necessity. Ireland saw out the game scoring six tries in the process as Ian Madigan was given the reins to replace, the seemingly irreplaceable Jonny Sexton.What the Georgian game meant really was a two-week preparation for the Wallabies. Now led by Leinsters favorite son Michael Cheika, the Irish players were well equipped to manage the Aussie challenge. The autumn before they took their eyes off the ball and focused to closely on the All Blacks, no such mistake would be made this time around. A ferocious start saw Ireland sail into a commanding 17-0 lead, albeit after a crucial intercept try from Tommy Bowe preventing a certain five pointer for the away side. The Wallabies didn’t hang their heads and led by the temperamental Nick Phipps, who would cross for two scores, they clawed themselves back into the game to see the sides level at the break. A hugely entertaining first half petered out in the second, as Ireland showed huge composure to grind out a 26-23 win and a clean sweep from the autumn.
All this meant that Ireland sat third in the World Rugby rankings at the end of 2014. The talk is now of a serious challenge at years world cup. The team has come a long way since Schmidt replaced Kidney. Squad rotation has meant that Schmidt enjoys depth in all positions, however the issue of Sextons fitness will be crucial to any success in England next year. 2014 will live long in the memory; let’s hope 2015 is remembered for all the right reasons too.