2016 has proven to be a remarkable year for Irish rugby. After being knocked out at the quarter final stage of the World Cup, Ireland underwhelmed during their subsequent Six Nations campaign.
Although Ireland began to find form during their tour of South Africa, Irish rugby found itself in a depressing place last March. Following their defeat to France, it appeared as though Joe Schmidt was going to have to rely on Mike Ross for at least another season as Tadhg Furlong was decimated in Paris.
Schmidt’s game plan also appeared to be going stale, while it didn’t seem as if the coach possessed the necessary depth of talent to challenge for international honours.
The problems faced by the national team were compounded by the lackluster performances of the provinces, who struggled to make any kind of impact in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
However, although it appeared as though Irish rugby was regressing, subtle changes were taking place in the background. Despite suffering defeat in Twickenham, Schmidt adopted a more mobile strategy that he hasn’t strayed from since.
Even though Ireland continued to deploy a kick chase game, their reliance on Conor Murray’s box kicks subsided as 2016 progressed.
While Murray’s boot provided Ireland with the platform to beat the All Blacks in Chicago, is was their ability to move the ball at tempo that won the game.
On that famous night, Ireland opened up New Zealand’s defence by playing intuitive rugby through a mixture of power and creativity. Gone was Ireland’s adherence to a strict game plan based on percentages.
On the provincial level too there were massive changes. Connacht threw off the shackles of history, playing with liberty and ability to claim a historic Pro12 league title.
Munster and Leinster responded to their poor campaigns last season by bringing in experienced coaches to aid Anthony Foley and Leo Cullen respectively. Tragically for Munster and Irish rugby as a whole, Foley will not be able to reap the benefits of working alongside Rassie Erasmus.
After signing Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee, Ulster proved that the Irish sides can compete with the financial might of the Top 14 and Premiership, but face the challenge of replacing Ruan Pienaar next season.
Although Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks will be the highlight of 2016 for many fans, the emergence of so many young players over the last 12 months has given Irish rugby every reason to be confident about the year ahead.
On this week’s edition of the Oval Office Podcast, we speak to Jamie Roberts and look ahead at the festive fixture list.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena