2018 IN REVIEW: RUGBY
WHAT A YEAR FOR IRISH RUGBY
By Daire Walsh
AS a nation, Ireland has always been prone to bouts of hyperbole when it comes to analysing the significance of major sporting events.
Yet, given all that has been achieved in the past 12 months, it is difficult to argue with the assessment – made by many within the media and the public at large – that 2018 has been the greatest year in Irish rugby history.
In addition to securing a second Grand Slam in the Six Nations era (2000-present), Ireland also triumphed against the All Blacks for the very first time on home soil. Throw in a summer series win over Australia and it easy to see why anticipation is so high ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan.
There are, of course, always obstacles along the road to success – and Ireland’s extraordinary Six Nations campaign was no different. With their Championship prospects under intense scrutiny, Jonathan Sexton landed a truly spectacular stoppage-time drop-goal to get Ireland over the line in a cagey opener against France at Saint-Denis.
It was the catalyst for the Green Army to develop a winning streak that culminated in a St Patrick’s Day triumph over England at Twickenham Stadium. Until injury brought his career to an abrupt halt, Naas’ Jamie Heaslip was a key component of the Irish back-row.
Kildare were still well represented on the international stage in 2018, however. Despite the Kill duo of James Tracy and Adam Byrne missing out on selection for very different reasons, Fergus McFadden (Suncroft) and Joey Carbery (Athy) made their own contributions to Ireland’s Six Nations odyssey.
McFadden was a late replacement for Stockdale in the France game, before enjoying a 17 minute run-out at home to Wales on February 24. After sitting out the French encounter as an unused substitute, Carbery finally made his Six Nations bow in a facile win at the expense of Italy.
He added three conversions to make it a memorable afternoon in Lansdowne Road and was also on target in cameos against Wales and England. He additionally featured in the round four disposal of Scotland (which saw Ireland sealing a third Six Nations crown in five seasons), but found himself playing second fiddle to Sexton at both provincial and international level.
While he ended 2017/18 as a PRO14 and Champions Cup winner with the Blues, he ultimately made a high-profile summer switch to arch rivals Munster. The desire for substantial game time at fly-half was the driving force behind the move – and he joined forces with fellow Lilywhites Jeremy Loughman (also Athy) and Tadhg Beirne (Eadestown) as a result.
From a position where he appeared to be Leo Cullen’s preferred choice as starting hooker, a dislocated elbow curtailed the aforementioned Tracy’s progress. A rejuvenated Sean Cronin subsequently assumed his mantle in the front-row, though Tracy did make a large contribution off the bench in the PRO14 and Champions Cup deciders.
Byrne found himself largely frozen out of the first-team squad at the business of the season and had to settle for a handful of Leinster ‘A’ caps as Cullen’s charges challenged on all fronts.
McFadden was approaching his best form until a hamstring injury in the Champions Cup semi-final win over Scarlets ruled him out for the province’s title run-ins. He is currently sidelined with a similar problem, but Byrne has put himself back in contention with a host of impressive displays in the Leinster back-three.
Eadestown’s Jimmy O’Brien has also graduated from the Irish 7s set-up (he featured alongside Naas man Billy Dardis in this summer’s World Cup in San Francisco) and recently scored two tries in a PRO14 demolition of the Dragons.
The pressure is on Leinster to retain their respective titles in 2019, but they remain the team to beat in both competitions. It is more of a challenge for Beirne, Carbery and Loughman down south – although Munster have the capability of taking on the best when Johann van Graan has a full hand to choose from.
Naas RFC club men Craig Ronaldson and James Connolly can also have big roles to play with Connacht, who are threatening a mini revival under new head coach Andy Friend.
Given we are now heading into a World Cup year, it is understandable that everything is currently geared towards getting the best out of Ireland in Joe Schmidt’s final weeks in the hot seat.
The New Zealander will hand the reins to Andy Farrell in the aftermath of the global competition, when it is hoped the Irish will have left the quarter-final heartbreak of previous tournaments firmly behind them.
On the domestic front, Naas RFC continue to fly the flag for the southern part of the county. They claimed a respectable sixth-place finish in Division 1B of the All-Ireland League last May and currently lie two points adrift of St Mary’s College at the midway point in the 2018/19 campaign.
Newbridge College’s 2018 Leinster Schools Senior Cup campaign came to an end at the hands of Belvedere College in the quarter-final, while their junior side were defeated by St Mary’s in the opening round.
Meanwhile, following the disappointment of last year’s World Cup in Dublin and Belfast, 2018 was always going to be a year of transition for the Ireland women’s senior team. Under new head coach Adam Griggs, they recorded back-to-back wins over Italy and Wales to finish third in the Six Nations.
A combination of a sabbatical and a serious knee injury ensured Kildare native Jenny Murphy was marked absent for Ireland in the past year, but she has a burning desire to force herself back in the mix from 2019 and beyond.
Whereas the 15s side are trying to get back to their previous high level, the sevens outfit are currently thriving. Already on the World Series circuit, they secured sixth spot at this year’s World Cup. Their male counterparts won the Challenge Trophy at the same tournament to keep the Ireland sevens programme in full flight for a hectic 2019.