Review of the year: Ireland find new identity and produce promise for the future
AFTER beginning the year suffering from somewhat of an identity crisis, it now looks like Andy Farrell is eventually getting his Irish team the way he wants them to play.
A successful Autumn Nations Series in November was capped off by a thrilling win over New Zealand as their levels of performance were brought to a whole new level.
That win over the All-Blacks was sandwiched in between victories over Japan and Argentina respectively as Ireland went try crazy. Nineteen tries were clocked up over the series as this new look Ireland had pundits and supporters alike purring with excitement.
The new playing style of quick ball in attack and high intensity in defence seems to be a big hit with not only the fans, but also the players.
Peter O’Mahoney described the month as the ‘most enjoyable month of his career so far’. A statement made more startling after the Munster man made only one start during the series. And that only came after a late withdrawal on the morning of the final game.
It’s in stark contrast to how O’Mahoney and Ireland’s year started out.
Just 14 minutes into this year’s Six Nations, O’Mahoney was red carded following a high tackle on Wales prop Tomas Francis.
A five-point defeat ensued and a week later in Dublin, France left with the victory points on a 17-15 scoreline.
The display against France particularly lacked cutting edge as Ireland went from left to right and back again without ever putting the French under any real threat.
Victories over Italy and Scotland followed but doubts remained. After all, these are two fixtures that Ireland have dominated in recent years, so questions over the management and the direction they were going hung in the air.
Then came the game that changed everything.
In their previous three encounters against England, Ireland had taken three confidence-bashing defeats and Eddie Jones’s troops rolled in to Dublin looking to pile more misery on the Irish.
But it didn’t quite work out like that.
One clever play of attacking rugby and all of a sudden, Farrell’s tenure took on a completely different perspective in the 22nd minute with a move straight from the coaching manual of attack coach Mike Catt.
With the tie delicately poised at 3-3, Ireland had a lineout 10 metres inside the England half.
An overthrow from Rob Herring caught out the English defence and Jack Conan delicately knocked the ball down to winger Keith Earls who timed his run from the right wing to perfection.
The Munster man sprinted clear of the English cover to finish the move in the corner of an empty Aviva Stadium.
It left England shell shocked and they never recovered with Ireland cruising to a 32-18 win.
Now there was hope. Now there was a game plan developing and an identity being formed.
As Covid-19 restrictions were eased, fans greeted the players for summer tests against Japan and the USA.
The Aviva Stadium was far from full but it was a welcome change to the empty stadiums that the players had to endure for the previous 10 months.
The Lions tour to South Africa robbed Farrell of the services of Tadgh Beirne, Tadgh Furlong, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, and Bundee Aki.
Farrell afforded time off for experienced trio Keith Earls, Cian Healy and captain Johnny Sexton thus giving the opportunity to run the eye over players who had impressed for their clubs last season.
3,000 spectators were treated to two entertaining affairs as Ireland saw off the Japanese 38-31 and the USA 71-10.
The series saw James Ryan enjoy a successful stint as captain while there were try scoring debuts for Munster number eight Gavin Coombs and Ulster pair, Robert Baloucoune and Nick Timoney.
Farrell also handed debuts to three other Ulster players, with James Hume partnering club mate Stuart McCloskey in the midfield with Tom O’Toole getting a run out at tight head.
But the autumn tests were when the serious questions were going to be asked.
With Covid-19 still dictating how we live, a return test against the USA in Las Vegas at the end of October was forced into postponement.
With three tests to come against Tier One nations, the USA game was an ideal opportunity for Farrell to run his eye over other emerging talent as experimentation against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina could prove too costly.
As Johnny Sexton ran out to win his 100th cap against Japan, nobody in the crowd could have foreseen what was to follow over the next 80 minutes.
Playing fast and elusive rugby, Ireland banished the ghosts of Shizuoka in style with an eye catching 60-5 victory.
While Sexton marked the occasion with a virtuoso showing, the performances of James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park stole the show while Andrew Porter marked his switch from tight-head to loose-head with a powering display.
But could Ireland keep this level of intensity going?
Against New Zealand, Ireland brought a level of intensity to their game that no one has ever seen before from an Irish side.
Getting into their faces from minute one, the All-Blacks didn’t know what hit them and were never allowed to settle into the game.
A 29-20 victory saw Ireland record their third win over New Zealand in the last five attempts.
After conceding early against Argentina the following week, Ireland recovered to romp to a comfortable 53-7 win with all seven tries being scored by the forwards.
So, after winning eight games on the bounce, could 2022 be Ireland’s year?
It’s certainly the most exciting Irish squad in a number of years.
The displays of Andrew Porter, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan have been nothing short of world class and add that to the talent already there in Iain Henderson and Tadgh Furlong, Ireland now have a pack that rivals anything else in world rugby.
Behind the scrum Jamison Gibson-Park’s sudden good form has been key to the recent run of wins while the centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose is a match up to rival the world’s best, while the rock steady Hugo Keenan has confirmed his status as Rob Kearney’s permanent replacement.
With a young and exciting squad starting to gel together, maybe this Ireland squad has at last found it’s new identity.