Many positives for Ireland rugby from 2017 performances
DESPITE having to settle for the runners up spot to England at the Six Nations there were many positives for the Ireland rugby team in 2017, notably a hugely successful summer tour of the United States and Japan in which a star was born and a 100 per cent success record in the Autumn international series.
Wins over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in November clinched Joe Schmidt's team a return to third place in the world rankings and Ulster's Jacob Stockdale confirmed his reputation as the country's most exciting prospect during the series.
The 21-year-old winger, who had made a try-scoring debut in the 55-19 win over the US Eagles in June, added two more against Argentina after marking his first senior international appearance on home soil with a touchdown in the a record-breaking 38-3 victory over South Africa.
The former Wallace High School student should be one of the first names on Schmidt's list when he announces his squad for the upcoming Six Nations, such has been his meteoric rise through the ranks with province and country.
While finishing second in the 2017 event, Ireland did, at least, have the satisfaction of preventing England from completing the Triple Crown and Grand Slam with a 13-9 win in the final test in Dublin.
In doing so, Schmidt's men ended a second world-record 18-match winning sequence, just as they had done in November 2016 when they scored their first-ever victory over New Zealand in Chicago ending an 111-year wait.
Ireland began the Six Nations with a disappointing 27-22 away loss to Scotland, a thrilling second-half revival just failing to see them over the line after an indifferent opening 40 minutes.
Keith Earls dotted down after two converted tries from Stuart Hogg had put Scotland 14-0 ahead.
Alex Dunbar then caught Ireland napping when he burst through for a try following a cheeky line-out move, leaving Rory Best's team with it all to do, as they trailed 21-8 at half-time.
But converted tries from Ulster pair Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson saw Ireland edge ahead after 61 minutes only for two late penalties from Craig Laidlaw to seal the deal.
Ireland redeemed themselves the following week when they they scored nine tries in a record-breaking 63-10 demolition of Italy in Rome.
Ulster's Craig Gilroy claimed a quick-fire hat-trick, scoring his treble in the space of 14 minutes during a 33-minute cameo after coming off the bench.
CJ Stander also weighed in with three tries as Ireland became the first team to secure a bonus-point in the history of the event after the incentive was belatedly introduced in 2017.
Ireland made it two wins from three a fortnight later in Dublin when they came from behind to defeat 2023 World Cup hosts France 19-9, 11 of the points coming from Johnny Sexton.
The hosts were 6-0 down after 20 minutes before Conor Murray steadied the ship when he crossed the line for Sexton to convert.
The fly-half's boot continued to keep the scoreboard ticking over and he added a drop-goal and two penalties before the French could muster a reply and then Jackson kicked over another three-pointer to seal the win.
Ireland then needed to beat Wales at the Millennium Stadium to have any chance of claiming the title but a 22-9 defeat left England with the task of defeating Scotland later in the day to take the honours with a game to spare which they duly did with a runaway 61-21 victory.
George North scored two of the Welsh tries and Ireland were unable to cross their opponents' line despite a brave second-half comeback, in which Sexton kicked two penalties to reduce the gap to 15-9 after an earlier three-pointer from Jackson.
Jamie Roberts touched down late in the game to end Irish ambitions but there was to be a sting in the tail when the newly-crowned champions visited Dublin with the clean sweep in their sights.
The drama began even before the opening whistle as Jamie Heaslip pulled up in the warm-up and Peter O'Mahony was introduced to the starting team from the bench as Schmidt was forced to shuffle his pack.
The Munster man was a veritable colossus and his fairy-tale day was complete when he received the man-of-the-match accolade after Ireland denied England the Slam just as they had done in 2001 and 2011.
A first-half try from Henderson and eight points from Sexton's boot secured Ireland, without the injured Murray, their 13-9 win which left them in second place ahead of France and Scotland on points difference.
Eleven Irishmen, including Best, Henderson and Jared Payne were included in the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand which finished all-square after one win apiece and a drawn final game.
None of the Ulster trio made the test teams and Payne's pitch-time was cut short by migraines which have prevented him from playing for club or country since the tour.
O'Mahony captained the side in the opening test which the All Blacks won 30-15, Sean O'Brien getting one of the Lions' two tries and a late Owen Farrell penalty then clinched a 24-21 victory to square the series after Murray had earlier got a touchdown.
Farrell was again the hero in the final test as he sent over two penalties as the Lions fought back from a 12-6 interval deficit to draw 12-12 in the final match.
Around the same time, due to Lions' call-ups, Schmidt took a largely youthful Irish squad on tour and Stockdale, with fellow Ulster player Kieran Treadwell joining him among the eight new caps, was one of the eight try-scorers in a big win over the US Eagles.
Paddy Jackson scored 13 points in the subsequent 50-22 win over Japan which was followed by a 35-13 victory over the 2019 world cup hosts in which Ulster's Sean Reidy got one of the five Irish tries.
Stockdale and Ulster team mate Rob Herring both crossed the whitewash as Ireland opened the Autumn series with a record 38-3 win over South Africa.
Schmidt made 13 changes for the game against Fiji and Herring was handed his first start but it took two late penalties from Ian Keatley for Ireland to record an unconvincing 23-20 victory.
Back to full-strength, Ireland then exacted a measure of belated revenge for their 2015 World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina when they defeated the Pumas 28-19, helped by that brace of tries from Stockdale as Schmidt's men finished the year on a high.