Following a season where Irish rugby teams won almost every trophy available to them, Dara Martin thinks prospects for the coming year look bright.
A GRAND SLAM for Ireland, the Heineken Cup for Leinster, the Magners League title for Munster, a Churchill Cup victory for the Ireland A squad and the highest ever Irish representation on a British & Irish Lions tour amounted to the most successful year ever in Irish rugby, and possibly in the history of Irish sport. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ including the likes Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara have finally garnered the silverware that evaded them for so long.
No longer were Irish rugby fans satisfied with second-place finishes in the Six Nations or even Triple Crowns. The national team finally went on to complete their first Grand Slam in 61 years last March – a day many thought they would never see following the lows of the Rugby World Cup in 2007. The revolution in form under new head coach Declan Kidney was also backed up by successful seasons at provincial level, but what’s in store for the coming season?
The senior Ireland squad remains largely unchanged, although potentially it could even be stronger than last year, bolstered by some of the in-form Churchill Cup players such as Neil Best, Fergus McFadden and Devin Toner. Cover for John Hayes at tighthead prop remains the one area of major concern. Going on 36, whether or not Hayes will make it to the next World Cup in 2011 depends on his remarkable ability to stay injury-free. It is unlikely that there will be any other retirements before the tournament in New Zealand.
This November, Ireland welcome World Champions and probable Tri-Nations victors South Africa to Croke Park, as well as Australia and Fiji. The match against the Springboks, currently ranked first in the world, will be a good barometer of Ireland’s standing in the world game. Although Australia have struggled in this year’s Tri-Nations, their young team will also provide a stern test, while the game against Fiji might afford Kidney the opportunity to experiment by providing some of the younger players with much needed game time at the highest level.
The fact that Felipe Contepomi has moved on from Leinster should allow Jonathan Sexton an extended run in the number 10 jersey, allowing him challenge O’Gara for the Ireland outhalf position in the Autumn Internationals. Eoin Reddan’s return to Ireland from London Wasps could see him competing to regain the Irish scrumhalf jersey from Tomas O’Leary and Peter Stringer. Meanwhile, the very impressive Cian Healy is putting strong pressure on Marcus Horan in the front row. Such competition for places is vital for success, while also providing the Ireland team with real impact off the bench.
Although it has been a turbulent summer for rugby across the Irish Sea in Britain, regarding widespread drug use and evidence of cheating, the Irish provinces remained largely uninvolved and unaffected, and look forward to building on the successes of last season in the Heineken Cup and Magners League.
There have been some notable transfers in and out of the provinces, particularly Munster’s acquisition of Springbok centre Jean de Villiers as well as the up-and-coming fullback Felix Jones, while Contempomi, Chris Whitaker and the irreplaceable Rocky Elsom have departed the Leinster setup.
Both Munster and Leinster are among the favourites and top seeds in this season’s Heineken Cup, while Ulster must overcome Bath, Stade Français and Edinburgh before progressing from their group. Meanwhile Connacht will be hoping to avoid a last place finish in the Magners League for a fourth year running, and instead challenge for a place in the Heineken Cup.
With no Rugby World Cup or Lions Tour this season, the Irish players and provinces can focus solely on defending the titles that they won last season. However, with visits to Paris and London to come in the Six Nations, back-to-back Grand Slams seem a tall order, although the current squad certainly has the ability to achieve further successes.