As Brian O’ Driscoll hung up his international boots last weekend it truly marked the end of an era for Irish rugby. BOD was the leader of the Golden Generation of Irish rugby flanked by the likes of Paul O’ Connell and Ronan O’ Gara and people would be forgiven for thinking the golden age is coming to an end.
But looking at what lies ahead for Irish rugby, it seems there is a new crop of stars for rugby fans to pin their hopes on. A Golden Generation 2.0 if you will.
Heading into the World Cup next year there is a feeling of optimism that Ireland can atone for the mishaps of 2007 and the disappointment of 2011. A semi-final finish feels more than possible.
And while BOD and ROG may be gone we still have many other fine qualities. First and foremost, we have Joe Schmidt. The Kiwi boss has masterminded Ireland to a Six Nations Championship in his first year involved and everyone has been praising his influence. His man management brought the best out of many players during the Championship including Andrew Trimble, Devin Toner and even the elder statesmen of the team like Gordon D’Arcy seemed to be re-energised and inspired to perform.
Joe Schmidt’s attention to detail and ruthless demand of perfecting the basics will stand to Ireland going forward. Schmidt’s forwards coach John Plumtree also deserves a mention and should give fans every reason for optimism as his influence has seen Ireland perform the best in the lineout throughout the Six Nations and also enabled the scrum to become a real attacking threat.
We still have some world class players in our ranks too. Paul O’ Connell is still one of the best players in the game despite his age. Cian Healy proved how important he is for us with some superb Six Nations performances and Jamie Heaslip played some of his finest international rugby since the 2009 Grand Slam. All this before we remember that Sean O’ Brien is still to return to the fold after injury.
The most important thing that Schmidt has highlighted in the Six Nations just gone is that Ireland has real depth in the squad. There is more depth in the current squad than there has ever been before. Across the front three is the likes of Marty Moore and Jack McGrath to provide cover and Dave Kilcoyne from Munster is also a highly rated prospect. In the second row Donnacha Ryan, who could well have started in the Six Nations had he been fit, and Dan Tuohy are both available to slot in, and compete for places. Not to mention Devin Toner has now established himself as an international second row after some fine performances during the Championship.
In the back-row the nation’s pool of talent has never been richer. Jamie Heaslip played well and Peter O’ Mahony showed how superb he is doing grunt work at ruck time and how aggressive he can be with his carries. The Munster captain also established himself as a fine line out jumper. Chris Henry performed admirably when tasked with filling Sean O’ Brien’s boots and, as already mentioned, the Tullow Tank himself is still to return. And it’s not just those four either, Robin Copeland is returning to Munster after impressing in Cardiff and there is young talent coming through with the likes of Iain Henderson, Tommy O’ Donnell and Rhys Ruddock all staring for their provinces.
In the backs there is a gaping hole at outside centre, but there are options for Schmidt. Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald have well voiced ambitions of playing at 13 as well as Ulster duo Darren Cave, who is tipped to have a shot, and Jared Payne who qualifies to play for Ireland in November. The chosen one for the 13 shirt is however the BOD anointed Robbie Henshaw. O’ Driscoll said of the young Connacht man that “…he has all the attributes to be a seasoned campaigner for Ireland for many, many years.” High praise indeed.
Out wide and waiting in the wings is where Joe Schmidt faces his biggest selection headache. Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney performed superbly in the Six Nations, Trimble more than anyone showing what persistence, good club performances and a little luck can do. Tommy Bowe is still a world class winger and he will desperate to regain hold of the number 14 jersey. Elsewhere Simon Zebo will want to get his international career back on track and with many pundits claiming the aforementioned Earls, McFadden and Fitzgerald are better suited to the wing, Schmidt has one of the best headaches you could wish for.
Despite the loss of Irish rugby’s most iconic player,there are more than a few reasons to be cheerful about the future of Irish rugby.
Pundit Arena, Steve Neville.