Rugby

Ireland hope to maintain momentum from historic year as World Cup looms on the 2023 horizon

Ireland players celebrate following their win over South Africa in the the Autumn International match at the Aviva Stadium in November 5
Ireland players celebrate following their win over South Africa in the the Autumn International match at the Aviva Stadium in November 5 Ireland players celebrate following their win over South Africa in the the Autumn International match at the Aviva Stadium in November 5

It’s been another stellar year for the Ireland team.

An historic series win in New Zealand was backed up with a win over world champions South Africa in November. It all helped Andy Farrell’s side to top the world rankings at the year’s end.

Of course, Ireland have been here before.

Four years ago, Ireland went into the last World Cup year in a similar position after another win over the All-Blacks.

Back in 2019, a horrid World Cup followed a poor showing in the Six Nations as Ireland were accused of being too one dimensional and far too predictable as Joe Schmidt’s reign as head coach came to an end against the All-Blacks.

Four years on and Ireland are hellbent on making sure that lighting won’t strike twice.

And the signs are that they have appeared to learn from past disappointments as they enter another World Cup year.

The style and manner of their Autumn Nations Series wins over South Africa, Fiji and Australia was in stark contrast to their performances in this year’s Six Nations and summer tour to New Zealand.

Speed, offloads and flair were replaced by grit, doggedness and defensive heroics as Australia and in particular South Africa asked different questions of this current Irish squad. And with the class of 2022 coming up with plenty of answers, there is quiet optimism that maybe next year is the year that Ireland can finally launch a serious bid to get the hands on the William Webb Ellis Cup.

After a successful Autumn Nations Series the previous Autumn, there were hopes of a positive Six Nations campaign.

Wales were first up and a sold-out Aviva Stadium saw the boys in green get their campaign off to the best possible start.

Two tries from Andrew Conway and one apiece from Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose helped Ireland to a 29-7 win that was every bit as easy as the scoreline suggests.

For round two it was off to Paris for what many were already saying was the championship decider.

But just two days before the game Ireland suffered a body blow with the news that captain Johnny Sexton would miss the game due to a hamstring injury.

James Ryan took over the captaincy but all the talk was surrounding Joey Carbery who came in for Sexton.

In what was probably the game of the championship, pre-tournament favourites France raced into a 10-0 lead. However, a sensational score from Mack Hansen quickly brought Ireland back into the contest. Hansen showed incredible skill to catch a Carbery restart after a French score to light up the Stade de France.

Ireland registered further tries through Josh Van de Flier and Jamison Gibson Park but ultimately it was France who took control of the championship with a 30-24 win. A bonus-point did mean that any potential French slip up and Ireland were primed to take advantage.

An early red card to replacement hooker Epalahame Faiva vanquished any hopes of an Italian upset in Dublin two weeks later.

Ulsterman Michael Lowry marked his first Six Nations game with two tries while Kieran Treadwell was also amongst the scorers in a nine try 57-6 romp.

An early dismissal to Charlie Ewels saw England play for 79 minutes with a man down, but Eddie Jones’ side put in a spirited performance at Twickenham.

But a patient Ireland claimed another bonus-point win with 17 points to spare as late tries from Jack Conan and Finlay Bealham sealed a 32-15 win.

With France wrapping a Grand Slam at home to England, Ireland had to settle for the Triple Crown after a less than inspiring 26-5 win over Scotland.

Despite the second-place finish, the squad jetted off on their summer tour in high spirits and confident of doing what no other Irish squad had ever achieved – a win in New Zealand.

Ireland had never won a test match in New Zealand and a first series victory down under looked as far away as ever when the Kiwis romped to a 42-19 first test win in Auckland.

An early Keith Earls try did give the tourists the initiative early on. But by the time the half-time whistle came around, the All-Blacks had stormed into a 28-5 lead.

Despite a spirited second half showing, New Zealand saw the first test out to record a comfortable 23-point win.

If Ireland were going to achieve the unthinkable, they were going to have to do it the hard way. Or, so we thought.

A try in each half from Andrew Porter in the second test helped Ireland to a 23-12 win in Dunedin. A late New Zealand try from winger Will Jordan only served to take a little bit of gloss off the final scoreboard as Ireland controlled proceedings for almost the entirety of the whole game.

It was a performance of discipline and assurance which was in stark contrast to their first test showing a week earlier.

Momentum was now with Ireland and in the decisive third test, Farrell’s side wasted no time in seizing control of the series. First half tries from Josh Van Der Flier, Hugo Keenan and Robbie Henshaw propelled the Irish into a 22-3 half time lead.

As expected, the Kiwis came roaring back and cut the deficit to just three-points with 20 minutes remaining.

But Rob Herring’s try in the 65th minute sucked the life out of the New Zealand fightback and Ireland hung on to achieve their greatest ever triumph in the game to date.

Ireland then opened the Autumn programme with a 19-16 win over the Springboks. Coming up against their famed power game, the Irish were able fight fire with fire as they claimed another big scalp in 2022.

Wins over Fiji (35-17) and Australia (13-10) as Ireland closed out the year in triumphant style while off the field Josh Van Der Flier was named World Player of the Year.

It all augurs well for a successful tilt at both the Six Nations and World Cup in the new year.