With the Rugby World Cup coming up in September, Sorcha O'Connor questions whether the new crop of young Irish players have the potential to emerge from the shadows of O'Driscoll and O'Gara.
The rugby scene in Ireland has thrived over the past few years with both Leinster and Munster winning Heineken Cups and Ireland winning Six Nation Championships and rising to the top of world rugby. With names such as O'Driscoll and O'Gara (amid many more) now gone, the new crop has come through. But is this side better than the one that was previous to it? Or has it the potential to be?
So earlier this year, Schmidt and his men were crowned RBS Six Nations Champions for the second year in a row. Yet despite the current strength of our international squad, the provinces are not exactly excelling themselves of late.
Munster have reached the Pro-12 final this weekend, but the question still remains whether the success of Munster or Leinster in Heineken Cups gone by will ever be seen again in the European Champions Cup?
It would seem unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, when the backing of millionaires is allowing French and British clubs to import some of the best players from around the world. Our own kicking extraordinaire Johnny Sexton is amongst them, although he is set to return to Leinster next season.
However there is no denying the international squad are certainly stronger than the other European nations of late (if we don’t hold the Welsh loss against them) and they ranked third overall in the world after an impressive Guinness series.
So we now have to ask if we have a new Ireland on our hands? An Irish side that finally can pull together and get the job done? Ultimately, is this a side that surpasses its predecessors?
It was not so long ago that a match without Brian O’Driscoll would send shivers down the back of the nation’s spine. How could we have coped without the great, the almighty BOD? However, coped is what the side has done and the future is certainly looking bright for Irish rugby.
There is a host of young, fresh players eager to step up to the plate and make their mark on the international scene, stepping out of the shadows cast by stalwarts such as O’Gara and O’Driscoll. The Irish rugby scene has an abundance of players who are versatile and still very young.
Sexton has just about shook off the shackles of O’Gara’s legacy (a cynic/die-hard Munster fan may suggest it's because of the teachings given to him by O’Gara himself). And under Sexton again, there is others competing for the out-half crown.
Ian Madigan is currently Schmidt’s go to man for substituting Sexton. He is one of the more versatile players in the squad and yet his game controlling skills can leave a lot to be desired. Ian Keatley is also good, but it is youngsters such as Ross Byrne and JJ Hanrahan that have serious potential to become stars. The legend that is O’Gara will always live on, but the new emerging players are certainly full of promise.
Sexton is also half of one of the best out-half/scrum-half combinations in rugby today. Munster’s Conor Murray is still only 25 and the two could be deemed spectacular when they get it right.
With each match it looks as though these two are only progressing further, and while things like Peter Stringer’s pass to O’Gara for the drop goal to clinch the Grand Slam will forever be etched in our memories, it’s clear that Sexton and Murray are something special.
There is a worry though that perhaps newer players will not have the longevity of those of the past. The game has become ferocious in its physicality and concussion and ACL injuries are of major concern for all involved. Ulster’s Luke Marshall for example suffered blows to the head last season and Sexton and Murray have also had similar experiences.
I also fear that there is some positions in the squad that will be hard to fill as the ‘old crop’ bows out; Paul O’Connell will be a massive loss when he leaves. Iain Henderson isn’t too shabby to say the least, but the presence of O’Connell will be hard to match.
Peter O’Mahony has taken over the reins well as captain at Munster though, so perhaps being positive is the best thing to do – the side has survived the loss of BOD and ROG, they’ll survive the retirement of Paulie too.
It is also fantastic to see Ireland has come to a level on the international rugby scene that an injury of a key player (such as Jamie Heaslip’s broken vertebrae during the Six Nations) doesn’t shake the whole squad.
"I knew Ireland were good, but I didn’t think they were that good," said O’Gara on 2fm’s Game On show after the win against England.
It seems he is right; Ireland are good and you could conclude that Schmidt has formed a contingent of well-oiled players that gel well in a number of plays and positions.
Schmidt is a clever coach and with the determination of players to do well and to avoid a tearing apart at the infamous Monday morning meetings held by Schmidt, this is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive Irish sides to date.
Players come in and out of the starting 15 seamlessly and there is rarely any clunky-play. The quality of the bench during this year’s Six Nations was remarkable. Experienced players such as Eoin Reddan, who came on to speed up the game in the dying embers of the Welsh match, and Seán Cronin were great substitutes to have, while newcomers Jordi Murphy and Martin Moore got stuck in with each of their appearances.
Schmidt even dropped Simon Zebo from the squad completely with the return of Luke Fitzgerald for the Scottish match. To be able to drop a player whose presence in the squad is considerable showed that this current side don’t turn into a bunch of headless chickens when regularly featured players are switched around or dropped.
Yet we can’t lose the run of ourselves. The Aviva is only just about becoming formidable to visitors. We still almost let England score a last minute try and closing out games is still a weakness – we could’ve beaten the All Blacks last year if the side had kept its head; and our hopes to secure the (admittedly often allusive) Grand Slam title were dashed against Wales.
However it seems this Irish squad has made all the right shapes for a great World Cup campaign. We have the likes of the Barbarians match to look at their form again, but when it comes to heading to England next September, let’s just hope it’s not another shambolic ’07 debacle – because I don’t think the country – or players – could deal with that kind of heartbreak again.
We may be RBS Six Nations Champions right now, but it is at the World Cup that we will really see has this Irish side bettered the ones that came before.