REVIEW OF 2017: RUGBY
FINE YEAR FOR KILDARE’S RUGBY STARS
By Daire Walsh
THERE may have been a lack of major silverware for Irish teams in 2017, but heading into what should prove to be another action-packed 12 months of rugby, there is still significant cause for optimism.
Defeats to Scotland and Wales put paid to Ireland’s Six Nations title aspirations, but heading into their final game of the championship at home to England on March 18, Joe Schmidt’s side were high on motivation. Eddie Jones’ visitors had a second consecutive Grand Slam within their sights, but a combination of scores from Iain Henderson and Jonathan Sexton helped Ireland to secure a 13-9 triumph.
This was a timely boost for the national side, and with six consecutive wins in the summer and autumn tests that followed, Ireland will have momentum behind them heading into 2018. Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was forced out of the England game after injuring himself in the warm-up, and more than nine months on, it is unclear when the centrally-contracted number eight will be back in action at either provincial or international level.
Kill native James Tracy made a second-half appearance in the facile 63-10 success at the expense of Italy on February 11 (when Heaslip captained the side in the absence of Rory Best), and he made his first start for Ireland in the final game of the summer tour to the US and Japan.
He also enjoyed cameo appearances in the Guinness Series wins over Fiji and Argentina last month, and shared the field with a familiar face in the closing stages of the latter. Adam Byrne also hails from the village of Kill, and he played the full 80 minutes on his international debut against the Pumas.
Athy youngster Joey Carbery was ruled out of this test because of an injury he sustained in the Fiji game (he missed out on the Six Nations for similar reasons), but after a troubling performance against the US Eagles in June, his late season showings provided greater signs of encouragement.
Carbery, Byrne, Tracy, a fit-again Heaslip and Fergus McFadden (Suncroft) could well have big roles to play for Leinster in the new year, and they appear to be ideally placed to challenge for top league and European honours.
The addition of Southern Kings and the Toyota Cheetahs from South Africa has turned the Guinness PRO12 into the PRO14, and Eadestown’s Tadhg Beirne played a major role in the final destination of the old competition.
The towering lock was a try-scorer for Scarlets in the Grand Final triumph over Munster last May, and thanks to his desire for a place in the international set-up, Beirne will be joining the Red Army from summer 2018 onwards.
Scarlets succeeded Connacht as league kingpins, and now that they are under the guidance of a new coach (Kieran Keane), it is hard to see the westerners replicating this success in the near future.
Still, they find themselves in a healthy position in the Challenge Cup with four rounds played, and Kildare natives Craig Ronaldson (Ballymore Eustace) and James Connolly (Naas) will be key figures in their quest for a knockout place.
Before the failed bid to host the 2023 men’s games, Ireland played host to the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Dublin and Belfast during the summer. The tournament itself was regarded as a successful venture, but for an Ireland team that had reached the penultimate rounds of the previous finals, it unfortunately proved to be a massive disappointment.
They had entered the competition on the back of a Six Nations campaign where they finished second to ultimate Grand Slam champions England, and back-to-back pool victories over Australia and Japan at UCD kept them in the frame for a last-four spot.
A comprehensive defeat to France in their final group game ended their chances of securing a World Cup on home soil, though, and subsequent losses at the hands of Australia and Wales saw them finishing eighth in the final tournament rankings.
Tom Tierney stepped down as head coach at the end of their World Cup campaign, and interim appointment Adam Griggs will now steer them through next spring’s Six Nations. Kilcullen’s Jenny Murphy featured in three of Ireland’s games at the World Cup, and with a number of players drawing their international careers to a close in recent months, her leadership will be needed more than ever.
The Ireland U20s also had a difficult World Championship in Georgia, where they ended the pool stages of the tournament with three successive reversals. Yet, it proved to be a great experience for Naas prop Jordan Duggan, who made four appearances for Peter Malone’s side over the course of the competition.
He graduated to the squad after impressing in the U19 set-up, and helped Ireland to finish in ninth place, courtesy of victories against Samoa and Georgia.
On the domestic front, several players from across the county are currently lining out with clubs across the top-two divisions of the Ulster Bank League, and Naas continue to fly the flag for Kildare rugby in Division 1B.
Under player/coach Johne Murphy, the Forenaughts outfit reached the promotion/relegation play-offs in May, but were unfortunately defeated by UL Bohemian. Four wins to date in the current campaign puts them in sixth place in the second-tier table, and they will be seeking to close the gap on the top-four when the league resumes on January 6th.
In schools rugby, there was disappointment for the Newbridge College seniors last February – as they went down to St Mary’s College in the opening round of the Cup. The Leinster Junior Cup provided greater joy to Newbridge, however, after wins against St Mary’s College and Wesley College helped them to advance to the semi-final of the competition.
This followed a Junior League final success against Kilkenny College in January, and while they lost out to eventual champions St Michael’s College in the final-four, a number of players from the squad look set to make early leaps into the senior ranks.