Following a 2015/16 season that saw Ireland once more fail to make it past the quarter final stage at the World Cup, suffer an underwhelming Six Nations campaign, and each of the provinces knocked out during the pool phase of the European Rugby Champions Cup, the early months of the new campaign have provided a much needed lift.
Given the number of injuries Ireland had suffered in the lead up to the November series, few gave Joe Schmidt’s side a chance before their first encounter with the All Blacks in Chicago.
Indeed, the prevailing school of thought suggested that Ireland’s best chance against New Zealand would come in the return fixture in Dublin two weeks later, when Schmidt would have Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson at his disposal.
However Ireland prevailed, earning themselves a maiden win over an All Black team that was described as the best New Zealand had ever produced.
With a pep in his step, Schmidt made 15 changes to his side for the subsequent fixture against Canada, demonstrating the depth of talent now at his disposal. Although the All Blacks earned some revenge in Dublin, the game itself was one for the ages.
The test in the Aviva Stadium was played with unrelenting physicality and no little skill. Neither side gave an inch in a game that saw New Zealand accused of overstepping the mark. Despite succumbing to defeat, Ireland could count themselves unlucky. On another day the referee may not have been as tolerant, and Sean O’Brien would have held onto the ball instead of spilling it within yards of the line.
The final game of the series saw Ireland bring a huge amount of tempo to their game against Australia. The Wallabies had rested a number of key players during their win over France, and were clearly looking to capitalise on a fatiguing Irish side.
They appeared to be on the verge of doing so after Sefanaia Naivalu’s try put the Wallabies into the lead for the first time in the 58th minute. Bernard Foley then added another penalty moments later, leading most to assume that a mixture of injury and fatigue had caught up with Ireland.
However with a revved up Peter O’Mahony unleashed from the bench, Keith Earls’ try fifteen minutes from time saw Ireland complete a southern hemisphere grand slam.
[tie_slide]1. Conor Murray
Ireland would not have beaten the All Blacks had it not been for the peerless Conor Murray. The scrum half ran the show from the base of the scrum by maintaining Ireland’s attacking tempo.
Murray’s quick service allowed Ireland send their big ball carriers crashing into an exposed New Zealand midfield, while his box kicks terrorised their back three. Like all top class scrumhalves, Murray can also exploit any lapse in concentration around the fringes, something he did at Aaron Smith’s expense in Chicago.
The kiwi only had eyes for the oncoming Donnacha Ryan, as the Munster scrum half sold Smith a brilliant dummy before racing over. Murray’s performance against the All Blacks was one for the ages, and saw him targeted during the return fixture.
Apart for doing everything in their power to slow Murray at breakdown, including a number of attempts to take him out before he had the ball in his hands, New Zealand selected two full-backs to negate his kicking game.
No higher compliment can be paid to a player by a team that sets the bar in international rugby.
[tie_slide]2. Josh van der Flier
This time twelve months ago Josh van der Flier was only beginning to establish himself in a Leinster squad that were missing their international contingent.
However after being handed his debut against England during last season’s Six Nations, the openside has not looked back.
Apart from having an ability to burst through tackles, he also plays like a traditional number seven – offering himself on the shoulder of the ball carrier to either clean out the subsequent ruck or take short pass.
Consequently the 23 year-old allows Ireland to play at a much greater tempo as Van der Flier’s mobility enables Ireland secure possession in the wider channels and create quick ball.
While Sean O’Brien has many strengths, he can’t clean out rucks while simultaneously making massive carries. Therefore it was little surprise to see both Leinster players work so well in tandem against New Zealand.
This in turn makes Van der Flier one of Ireland’s most important players, and could leave O’Brien, CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony battling for a place in Ireland’s backrow.
[tie_slide]3. Sean O’Brien
To make such an immediate impact after spending much of the last twelve months injured underlines Sean O’Brien’s quality.
His incessant carries kept New Zealand on the back foot in the Aviva Stadium, and although O’Brien may have dropped the ball when he seemingly had the line at his mercy, he didn’t drop his head.
Despite missing Ireland’s opening and closing fixtures of the November series, O’Brien still managed to rack up 33 carries, an equal number to that of CJ Stander.
O’Brien’s hunger to carry and his work rate in defence make him indispensable, and Joe Schmidt will be hoping that the flanker enjoys an injury free run before the Six Nations.
[tie_slide]4. Rory Best
Prior to the autumn series it was generally assumed Dylan Hartley would not only be the Lions starting hooker, but captain the touring side.
However after an autumn in which Best played a leading role in Ireland’s wins over New Zealand and Australia, Hartley’s presumed accession has been challenged.
Indeed the Northampton Saints hooker has not been at his best this autumn. Hartley’s successful tackle rate stands at just 68%, and he has only made 12 meters during England’s series thus far.
While both players have been solid at the set piece, crucially Best’s contribution around the field eclipses that of his rival. A great deal will depend on the Six Nations, but the Ulsterman might just be gaining the upper hand.
[tie_slide]5. Tadhg Furlong
Before discussing Tadhg Furlong’s contribution this autumn, it is worth remembering how the Irish scrum was decimated by France when the young tighthead replaced Nathan White during last season’s Six Nations.
However just nine months later Furlong laid to rest fears that Ireland would suffer in the absence of Mike Ross and Marty Moore. Furlong didn’t just stand firm in the face of the All Blacks at scrum time, he carried with an enormous amount of aggression batting aside players with his enormous strength.
Against Australia he went after Scott Sio in the scrum, driving Ireland forward and winning penalties at the set piece. Let’s not forget that this is a much improved Wallaby front row after Micheal Cheika sought out the help of Argentinian legend Mario Ledesma.
To think that Furlong is only 24 years is frightening, as props don’t often peak until their 30’s.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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