Following Ireland’s 2015 World Cup campaign, it appeared as though Joe Schmidt’s team were embarking upon a bumpy transitional period.
Almost immediately after Ireland were knocked out of the tournament by Argentina, questions were being asked as to Mike Ross’ ability to play international rugby for another two seasons.
The lack of depth at tight head was compounded by Marty Moore’s subsequent decision to join Wasps, while Ireland were also having to deal with Paul O’Connell’s retirement.
Uncomfortable questions were also being asked as to Joe Schmidt’s game plan, which seemed to have become stale during the tournament. Although Ireland’s pressure game did harvest consecutive Six Nations titles, they couldn’t deal with Argentina’s tempo or skill.
However, while the national team once again failed to make it past the quarter final stage, a core group of players began to emerge on the domestic front.
With the likes of Jordi Murphy, Nathan White, and Luke Fitzgerald on international duty, players such as Josh van der Flier, Finlay Bealham and Gary Ringrose were getting consistent game time with their provinces.
In addition, Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy made massive contributions to Connacht’s rise to prominence last season. While Munster’s financial situation forced the Reds to put their faith in players such John Ryan, Jack O’Donoghue, Rory Scannell and Darren Sweetnam.
Continuing Reading Below
In this week’s Oval Office Podcast we speak to Tommy Bowe about Ireland and what the future holds for the winger, plus we review all of last weekend’s action from the autumn internationals.
Consequently, while Ireland appeared to be regressing on the international stage, domestically the provinces were advancing the careers of the next generation of players.
However this narrative was not appreciated at the time and we must not fall into the trap of revising history. It must not be forgotten that twelve months ago the provinces were struggling in Europe and David Nucifora’s role within the IRFU had come in for scrutiny.
Commentators were also demanding that the IRFU grant the provinces more financial resources and greater independence when it came to signing overseas players.
In the end the opposite occurred at Munster, where the IRFU bailed out the province and installed Rassie Erasmus as Director of Rugby. In fact, it appeared as though those tasked with running rugby in Ireland identified deficiencies at a coaching level rather than with the available talent, and looked to solve the problem by attaining the likes of Erasmus and Stuart Lancaster.
The results speak for themselves. Although Ulster made two high profile signings last summer, both Munster and Leinster look far better sides after bringing in experienced coaches.
As a result, Irish rugby no longer looks to be regressing, but evolving. As much as Erasmus and Lancaster might be reaping the rewards of the hard work initially put in by Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen in trying circumstances, both Munster and Leinster needed experienced hands at the wheel in order to maximise their potential.
We are already witnessing the results. Erasmus’ influence at Munster is there for all to see. Not only do the Reds look better in defence, but the players look to have added to their core skills and are now playing with confidence.
Lancaster too has brought his influence to bear at Leinster, bringing efficiency to the breakdown.
As a result, competition for places in the national team has increased, particularly in the back row, driving players to better their performances on the field.
In turn, Ireland can now look forward to having a greater representation on the Lions tour than they might have had prior to the autumn series.
[tie_slide]1. Jack McGrath (Leinster)
Always considered to be a potential starter on tour, but added to his reputation this autumn. Strong at the scrum and even more potent in the broken field, Jack McGrath has already given the All Blacks a bloody nose.
[tie_slide]2. Rory Best (Ulster)
Some would have had you believe that Dylan Hartley was a certainty to start for the Lions with Jamie George offering back-up from the bench.
However Best’s strong showing this autumn in addition to Hartley’s dip in form has seen the 100 times capped Irish international come into the reckoning.
[tie_slide]3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster)
When you consider that he was decimated by the French front row during last season’s Six Nations, Tadhg Furlong’s improvement has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Not only is he now aggressive at scrum time, but Furlong is powerful ball carrier.
[tie_slide]4. Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
The very fact that Sean O’Brien was able to illustrate his best form against New Zealand after spending so long on the sidelines with injury demonstrates his quality.
With little game time to his name this season, O’Brien dominated for 80 minutes against New Zealand’s much vaunted back row. If fit, O’Brien is a certainty to travel.
[tie_slide]5. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
Competition for places in the back row is such that to even be selected among the touring party should be seen as an achievement.
A lot will of course depend on the Six Nations, but on current form Heaslip should be selected as one of two or three specialist number eights.
[tie_slide]6. CJ Stander (Munster)
It’s hard to believe that CJ Stander seemed to struggle when he first joined Munster in 2012.
However since then he has become one of the stand-out ball carriers in the northern hemisphere with an appetite for work out of possession.
With Peter O’Mahony relegated to the bench and Heaslip enjoying some of the best form of his career, Stander’s presence looks to have driven competition among the Irish back row onto a whole new level.
His ability to cover at both six and eight should also appeal to Gatland.
[tie_slide]7. Iain Henderson
Warren Gatland will have to disappoint at least one top class lock when he names his Lions squad.
With Maro Itjoe, George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones seemingly nailed on for inclusion, it leaves Jonny Gray, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Joe Luanchbury and Courtney Lawes all battling for the remaining slots.
However as Henderson brings the added advantage of being able to play in the back row, he may well got the nod ahead of Toner when the time comes.
[tie_slide]8. Conor Murray (Munster)
After a career defining performance against the All Blacks in Chicago, Conor Murray is now in possession of the Lions number nine jersey.
[tie_slide]9. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
Although it remains difficult to tell who will start at fly half against New Zealand, Johnny Sexton, Dan Biggar, Owen Farrell and George Ford are all likely to be included in the Lions squad.
[tie_slide]10. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
Robbie Henshaw will not only travel but could very well start against the All Blacks and is well on the road to becoming a world class player.
Although he might not receive the plaudits he deserves in the international media, after the Lions tour that might all change.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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Read More About: cj stander, conor murray, iain henderson, Ireland, irish rugby, jack mcgrath, Jamie Heaslip, Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton, josh van der flier, robbie henshaw, Rory Best, sean o'brien, tadhg furlong, Top Story