2016 Annual Rugby Review: The Kildare Nationalist – December 27 2016



Tracy and Byrne also have a 2016 to remember

By Daire Walsh

WHEN Joe Schmidt’s Ireland faced an all-conquering All Blacks side at Soldier’s Field in Chicago at the start of a hectic November schedule, the Windy City had just witnessed a truly remarkable sporting achievement.

The Chicago Cubs baseball team claimed the World Series for the first time since 1908, but given New Zealand were on an 18-game winning streak heading into their latest meeting with Ireland, it was expected that Steve Hansen’s charges wouldn’t entertain any romantic notions of another massive upset.

Ireland were still searching for their first-ever senior men’s international success over the southern hemisphere nation, despite seeing the women’s senior side and the men’s U20 outfit getting the better of their Kiwi counterparts in their most recent World Cup campaigns.

Yet, while it didn’t come close to matching the feat of the Chicago Cubs in the grand scheme of things, Ireland defied the odds to create their own slice of history on US soil.

Thanks to tries from Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Robbie Henshaw, Ireland recorded a stunning 40-29 triumph, and for supporters of rugby in Kildare, the presence of two local heroes in the Ireland squad made it extra special.

Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was making his 16th consecutive start for Ireland in the back-row, and he was joined in the latter stages of the second period by Athy youngster Joey Carbery.

The 21-year-old out-half was making his senior Ireland debut against the country of his birth, and after replacing the injured Jonathan Sexton, he contributed a final-quarter conversion for the victors.

It has been a massive 12 months for Carbery, who was instrumental for Clontarf in their impressive Ulster Bank League triumph in May, and since he registered two tries on his first Leinster start at home to Benetton Treviso in September, he has gone from strength to strength.

Heaslip has also been in superb form throughout 2016, and he was nominated for the prestigious World Rugby Player of the Year award. He also played a key role for Ireland in their maiden away success on South African soil during their summer tour against the Springboks (they lost the three-game series overall), and he was also a leading light for his country in a mixed RBS Six Nations Championship.

James Tracy also made his debut off the bench in a Guinness Series tie at home to Canada in the Aviva Stadium, and he registered a try in a comfortable win for the hosts. Like Tracy, Leinster winger Adam Byrne hails from the village of Kill, and having scored in back-to-back games for Leinster against Zebre last season, he bagged a hat-trick of tries against the same side in the current campaign.

A brace of five-pointers at home to Northampton Saints in the Champions Cup gives Byrne a record of seven tries in six appearances at the time of writing, and as 2016 draws to a close, the Blues (who are hoping to welcome back Suncroft’s Fergus McFadden from injury in the New Year) are flying high in the Guinness PRO12 and the top-tier European competition.

Leo Cullen’s first season as Leinster head coach ended in defeat in the PRO12 Grand Final at Murrayfield back in May, but Connacht’s success in this game was undoubtedly the great success story of Irish provincial rugby in 2016.

Three Kildare natives were given their chance to shine in Pat Lam’s squad in this groundbreaking adventure, with Craig Ronaldson of Ballymore Eustace played a particularly pivotal role for the westerners.

As the province’s principle place-kicker, he contributed a total of 89 points, and although injury ruled him out of their victory in the all-Irish Championship decider, he ended 2015/16 with 17 PRO12 appearances to his name.

23-year-old Naas flanker James Connolly also made a total of eight appearances as he continued his development at the Sportsground, and he followed it up with a try in an outstanding victory over Ulster at the beginning of the present term.

Former Newbridge College student Fionn Carr also played five games for the PRO12 winners, but after his second spell with Connacht came to an end, he returned to his domestic roots.

Naas RFC had just gained promotion from Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League when he arrived back at Forenaughts, and with five wins from nine games to date in the second-tier of Irish rugby, the southside club (who have ex-Leicester Tigers and Munster back Johne Murphy in a player-coach role) are in the reckoning for a spot in the top-flight heading into the New Year.

With the World Cup taking place in Dublin and Belfast, 2017 is set to be a huge year for the Ireland Women’s side. They ended 2016 with three consecutive defeats to England, Canada and New Zealand in the November Series at UCD, but victories against Wales, Italy and Scotland in the spring’s Six Nations did provide some cause for optimism.

Because of Sevens commitments and injuries, Kilcullen’s Jenny Murphy hasn’t featured for Ireland at 15s level since securing her second Six Nations title against Scotland in March 2015. However, Aine Donnelly (of Cill Dara RFC) assumed her outside centre role for their opening four games of the year, and she will be aiming to be in the shake-up for a spot in the World Cup squad.

The Ireland U20s also made massive strides in 2016, as they followed up a productive Six Nations with an excellent odyssey through the World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester.

Eadestown’s Jimmy O’Brien (who is now an established member of the Leinster ‘A’ side) was included in the initial Ireland squad, while Naas prop Adam Coyle was subsequently drafted in as an injury replacement.

They had snatched victory from the jaws of the defeat in their opening fixture with Wales, and this was followed by a magnificent 33-24 win over New Zealand (for the first time at this grade). O’Brien played his part off the bench in this encounter, and he was joined by Coyle on the field of play for Ireland’s comprehensive semi-final win over Argentina on June 20th.

They also saw action in Ireland’s subsequent decider with England, and even though Nigel Carolan’s outfit came up short in this showpiece outing, the tournament was a largely memorable one for O’Brien and Coyle.

O’Brien was one of the star performers for Newbridge College on their journey to the semi-final of the Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup in 2015, but their 2016 campaign came to an end in the opening round – when eventual champions Belvedere College recorded a 34-0 triumph in Donnybrook.

A brace of David Higgins tries helped Newbridge to claim a first-round win over Gorey Community School in the Junior Cup, but they also bowed out against Belvo in the quarter-final of the competition.

2017 will see the Newbridge juniors and seniors facing St Mary’s College in both of the principle schools rugby competitions, while Clongowes Wood College of Clane will be looking to build on their promising performances en route to the semi-finals of the Junior and Senior Cups in the past year.

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