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Irish Rugby Review 2013

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The November series of 2012 led us into 2013 with a mixed bag of expectations, hope and a real feel of not knowing where Irish rugby was going. There was a sense that change was on the horizon, Declan Kidney was in charge of an ageing team but there were signs of talented youth on the periphery. South Africa were the first of the visiting nations and in a tight game they just did enough to keep Ireland from claiming a win. A scoreline of 16-12 suggested as much but it was a game that Ireland should have and could have won. The courageous performance of nearly winning was now becoming a bit too regular and the fans were becoming somewhat impatient, good performances no longer enough to keep them happy. The following week, an uncapped Ireland XV played host to Fiji in Thomond Park. It was a game that although one-sided, I as an Irish rugby fan, thoroughly enjoyed.

I left Thomond with one word stuck fast in my mind, potential. With the World Cup just across the water in 2015, it was a performance from the young guys that showed Ireland had buckets of potential. The uncapped Ulster trio of Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and man of the match Craig Gilroy amassed a total of 33 points between them. Gilroy scored a hat-trick with his Ulster team mate Darren Cave scoring another. The centre partnership of Marshall and Cave and the performance of Gilroy on the wing left the fans with a feeling of hope for the future. The 53-0 win was a much needed result, a boost before the final game of the series against Argentina. The final game was another fine display, seven tries and a 46-24 win over the Pumas, gave Ireland the perfect platform to stride into the 2013 Six Nations Championship. The old heads were playing well, the younger guys were pushing hard for places in the starting fifteen, Irish rugby looked stable, it looked like we were a force going forward.

The Six Nations campaign was to start with an away game to the champions Wales, not exactly where you want to be on the 2nd of February but that’s where we were. Wales had come into this game from an abysmal November series of games. They were still however the Six Nations Champions, they had match winners all over the park but on this day, Ireland smothered them out of the game. Man of the match Brian O’Driscoll rolled back the years and was exceptional. Big performances from Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien gave Ireland a winning start to the Championship. The game was ultimately won in the first half; flashes of magic from O’Driscoll and Simon Zebo were the highlights of the match. Wales as expected came back into the game in the second half but it was too little too late as the mound that Ireland had built in front of them proved too much for them to ascend late into the game. The perfect start for Ireland, a 22-30 victory for the visitors and the expectations of the fans, sky high again. Oh what a difference a week makes.
The following week, England arrived at the Aviva. The English had every reason to fear their trip to Dublin. The past years had proven barren for them there and Ireland were becoming somewhat of a bogey team for them. In a bruising encounter, Ireland lost out to a penalty shoot out. The tryless affair was a test of stamina, a test of hunger and the English just proved to be that small bit more aggressive, wanting it that bit more. The youngest man on the field, out-half Owen Farrell kept his nerve to keep the English side’s unbeaten start intact. They were thinking Grand Slam, we were thinking, where did it all go wrong? Did we expect too much from this Irish side? Maybe, but the deflation was obvious and felt by all, the November series, the big win against the champions Wales had yet again set us up for the big fall, how big of a fall we had yet to find out but the expectations dropped, dreams free falling hard. England marched on with chests out, Ireland staggered back into the darkness, the vacuum of not realising high expectations all too apparent.

After a much needed extra week break, Ireland travelled to Murrayfield to attempt to get their Six Nations ambitions back on track. It turned out to be one to forget for the Irish. Beaten 12-8 by Scotland, a victory that would give the Highlanders their first back to back wins in this Championship since 2001. It’s rarely the truth but on this occasion, the better team lost, but a loss on the scoreboard is all that matters and that’s probably the only place that Ireland did lose. It was a case of knock-on’s, simple mistakes, one after another, not giving the final pass or simply making the wrong decision that cost Ireland this game. Luke Marshall started in the centre and if there was to be any positives from this game, it was his performance. A natural line breaker, speed, quick feet and strength give Marshall all the required ingredients to become a world class centre. Ireland’s Six Nations campaign was effectively all but over, a disappointing end to the hopes and dreams of a nation. Team building was not a viable excuse, just a bad performance, one that everyone knew, we should have done better. The small steps forward were being ridiculed by the huge strides back. France and Italy to play yet, all we could hope for now was to finish on a high.

France turned up to the Aviva Stadium having lost their opening three fixtures for the first time since 1982. Both they and Ireland had something to prove, that was all they were playing for, avoiding embarrassment, wooden spoons are not what players set out to achieve at the start of any Six Nations campaign but yet France and Ireland potentially could be at the receiving end this year. Ireland got off to the better start and took an early lead. The French hung in there though and with both teams missing penalties at various stages in the game, a draw would have to suffice for both. The French had stopped the rot but had yet to win a game in their campaign and the Irish had failed to win either of their home games for this year. Lots to work on but a final game trip to Rome would surely end this year’s Championship on a high note. A guaranteed win, we would have thought.

Italy, on previous occasions had Ireland on the rack, this time though, we hadn’t got a get of jail card called Ronan O’Gara. Ireland did have their injury problems going into this game but that should in no way detract from what was a great Italian performance and they deserved their first historic Six Nations win over Ireland. 22-15 was the final score and with it brought an end to a sordid campaign. Ireland played five matches, won one, ironically against the holders and eventual winners of the this year’s championship, Wales, drew one and lost three. A poor return for Ireland, the losses to Scotland and Italy particularly low points.

With the best of the Irish going down under with the Lions, the rest set off on a summer two game tour against the U.S.A. and Canada. Ireland scraped over the U.S.A. 12-15 but this was more about blooding the next generation, giving chances to the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding, Tommy O’Donnell, Jamie Hagan and Mike Sherry to show what they could do, Ian Madigan picked up the man of the match award.

Les Kiss took charge of the touring side after the departure of Declan Kidney following the Six Nations as incoming coach Joe Schmidt took his place among the spectators. The second game against the Canadians was much more one sided and Ireland came through with a 14-40 victory. Leinster’s Fergus McFadden picked up the man of the match award for his hat-trick of tries and put himself into the reckoning for a starting place in the full Irish team. The two game tour also showed Munster’s Peter O’Mahony had come of age, the twenty-three year old became Ireland’s youngest captain of the professional era and relished the physical battles that ensued.

And so we came full circle, back to the November series again. This year Ireland would host Samoa, Australia and World Champions New Zealand. Joe Schmidt’s first game in charge of Ireland proved to be a winning one, the Samoans battled hard for sixty or so minutes but then Ireland pulled away. It was a performance that was adequate, they did enough to win and again the bar of expectancy was raised for the visit of Australia. Whatever it is about Irish rugby, when we give ourselves a chance, when we expect to compete, it all seems to go horribly wrong. That was the case against Australia. Our defensive line was split all too easily and the Australians had an apparently easy win, 15-32 was the end result but it was maybe a case that the Wallabies were somewhat flattered by that score line. The performance wasn’t as bad as it had seemed at the time, sometimes games just get away from you and this was one of those. The scores did seem somewhat easy though and the Irish team had work to do to get up for the visit of the World Champions.

The All Blacks came, they lost but they still won. It was the horrible, ‘what could have been’, scenario. The best performance that I have ever witnessed from an Irish squad. The perfect start, 19-0 up after twenty minutes or so. Still leading after 80 minutes, close but no cigar. It is more infuriating to see what this team is capable of on any given day but as has been proved over and over in the past, it’s reproducing that performance that is the problem. I have no doubt that if Ireland played with the intensity and accuracy that they played with in that game against the All Blacks, they would win the Grand Slam with energy to spare. History is a weight that is difficult to carry, keeping possession of the ball for twenty seconds more would have given Ireland their first ever win over New Zealand. It just wasn’t to be, the All Blacks made their own bit of history, a full season, undefeated in the professional era, hats off to them but ultimately we let them off a very big hook to allow them their place in history.

So, looking back at the 2013 season for Irish rugby it seems that there were a lot more lows than highs. Beating Wales in the Six Nations opener was the only high in a very disappointing campaign. I think because of the opposition, the performance against the All Blacks must go down as a high, even though we ultimately lost and I think we have moved on from accepting good displays as some kind of moral victory. It was the performance that was put in though, the fact that we were up against the World Champions and the result from the previous week has sucked all expectation from the fans. An Ireland team not given a chance of winning is a dangerous animal, dangerous but still not the killing kind, we wounded the opposition and lived in hope that they would lie down and die themselves, when in this position again, we must learn that a killer blow is needed.

2014 should be an interesting year for the Irish squad. The World Cup is just around the corner and Ireland will be hoping to set a standard that they can bring forward into that tournament, a tournament that has seen us underachieve. We as supporters live in hope, new blood will generate new ambition, new management will bring new thinking, there is no room for sentiment in sport but if ever we needed to honour a man that has earned honour, this year should be for Brian O’Driscoll. If there is an extra percentage to give from any player, this is the year to give it. Let us not let him go quietly for he deserves, he is owed much more than that.

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  1. December 28th, 2013

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