Irish rugby preview 2022: International prospects, provincial hopes and women’s furore

Irish rugby

Irish rugby fans have plenty to look forward to next year, as Ireland’s men’s team and the four provinces showed plenty of promise in the closing stages of 2021.

The year didn’t start all that well, as Ireland lost their opening two matches in the Six Nations, while all of the provinces arguably underperformed in the Heineken Champions Cup, but the fortunes of Irish rugby have changed for the better.

It was of course a very disappointing year for women’s rugby, as Ireland failed to qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, which prompted an unprecedented letter sent to the government signed by 62 current and former internationals who stated their loss of faith in the IRFU.

On the sevens front, there was joy for the men’s team as they qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time, although their results in Tokyo were underwhelming. The women’s team had previously failed to book their place at the Olympics at a qualifying tournament back in 2019.

Ireland should be aiming for a Six Nations title in 2022.

Before the Autumn Nations Series, Irish rugby supporters could be forgiven for believing that little had changed since Andy Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt as Ireland head coach, and that there wasn’t a huge amount to be excited about.

Victories against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina have drastically changed the complexion of the national team however, as they implemented a fast paced, exciting brand of rugby to near perfection.

Ireland will head into the Six Nations with plenty of confidence as a result, although they certainly aren’t the only team with realistic hopes of getting their hands on silverware in March.

France and England both looked very good in November, and Ireland will unfortunately play both of them away from home in what is regarded as the tougher year for the men in green in the Six Nations’ two year cycle.

After the Six Nations comes a daunting task for Ireland, as they take on the All Blacks in a three test series in July on New Zealand soil.

Although Ireland have had plenty of success against the All Blacks of late, having won three of their last five encounters, one win from three should be considered a very good result in New Zealand.

Ireland’s fixtures for next November are yet to be confirmed, although games against the world champion Springboks and the Wallabies are likely to take place, both of which the men in green should expect to beat on home soil.

The provinces have a major point to prove.

Although Leinster won their fourth consecutive league title this year, it could be argued that the eastern province have actually underperformed in recent seasons, due to their results in Europe.

Leinster were excellent against Exeter Chiefs in this year’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final, but they looked well off the pace against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle to crash out at the semi-final stage.

Based on their squad depth and what they have achieved throughout their history, Leinster should be aiming to become European champions next year, and while the season as a whole won’t be a failure if they don’t but pick up another league title, it will be somewhat underwhelming.

For Munster, adding another trophy to their cabinet is long overdue. The two-time European champions last won silverware in 2011, when they beat Leinster in the Magners League final, and will be hoping to replicate that success come June.

Munster have started the season well, and adjusted brilliantly to the far from ideal situation they faced in South Africa, and look like they could go far in both the United Rugby Championship and the Champions Cup.

While becoming European champions for a third time currently looks to be a step too far for Munster, they should believe that they can win the URC.

Similarly to Munster, Ulster could really do with getting their hands on a trophy again. The Ulstermen last won silverware in 2006, and have suffered numerous losses in finals and semi-finals since then.

Ulster have been somewhat inconsistent so far this season, but their away win against Clermont Auvergne proves that they are capable of great things.

The northern province should be gunning for the URC title, while an appearance in the Champions cup quarter-finals would represent a decent season for them on the European front.

Connacht have played brilliant rugby since Andy Friend took over as head coach, following on from Pat Lam’s example, but the westerners have often struggled to put several good performances together.

On paper, they are still the weakest of the four provinces, but their 36-11 hammering of Ulster showed they can go toe-to-toe with their Irish rivals. Their 47-19 loss to Leinster soon after showed that they are still a way off being Ireland’s best team, however.

Although silverware is looking unlikely, they are in with a decent change of making the quarter-finals of both the URC and the Champions Cup, which would represent a successful season for Connacht.

Tensions are rising between the Irish women’s team and the IRFU after a dismal 2021.

Despite two wins from two in the autumn internationals, Ireland’s women’s team is not in a good place heading into the next year.

There will be a number of changes in personnel, as Adam Griggs is to be replaced by Greg McWilliams as head coach, while Ireland captain Ciara Griffin announced her international retirement at the age of just 27.

2021 was a massively disappointing year for the national team, as they failed to qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, following losses to Spain and Scotland in a qualifying tournament in September.

Ireland do have the Six Nations to look forward to next year, which has retained its individual slot in the rugby calendar in late March and April, but winning the championship is currently a far off dream.

England and France are currently miles ahead of the rest of Europe, and seemingly the rest of the world based on both country’s recent one-sided victories against New Zealand, and will likely brush aside Ireland with ease.

A third place finish certainly isn’t out of the question for Ireland though, and they will be extremely eager to exact revenge on Scotland after their World Cup qualifying heartbreak.

There are also considerable tensions between the women’s national team and the IRFU, following the letter sent to the government signed by 62 current and former Ireland internationals, which states a loss of faith in the sport’s governing body.

The Irish government have insisted that they are treating the letter with the “utmost importance” and may intervene with the IRFU’s internal review of how women’s rugby is run in the country, which the 62 signatories have asked to be made public.

While the vote of no confidence in the IRFU from high-profile figures in Irish women’s rugby may result in much-needed change in the long run, the benefits of such an action are unlikely to be reaped as soon as next year.

Sevens squads look to kick on after disappointing starts to the World Series.

Ireland’s men’s and women’s sevens squads will both be looking to improve after disappointing starts to the World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai.

The men’s sevens team qualified for the quarter-finals at both events held in Dubai, but came undone at the hands of Argentina and Australia in their last eight encounters.

Ireland ultimately finished in seventh and eighth place in the two respective tournaments, which has resulted in them sitting in ninth place in the overall World Rugby Sevens Series table, one better than their 10th placed finish at the Olympics.

There is of course plenty of time to improve their standing, with seven more events yet to come this season, the next of which takes places in Malaga in Spain in January.

The women’s team find themselves in a very similar situation, as they also sit in ninth place in the overall standings after the first two events in Dubai.

Ireland’s women’s sevens side have managed three wins from 10 across the two Dubai tournaments, one of which was an encouraging victory against Great Britain.

They will need to put in more performances of that kind should they wish to improve their standing on the overall table, although they have less time to do it than their male counterparts, with just four events left in the women’s edition of the World Series.

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