RUGBY: REVIEW OF 2019
By Daire Walsh
WHEN you factor the considerable achievements of the previous 12 months into the equation, it was little surprise that there was such a positive vibe surrounding the Irish rugby team at the start of 2019.
After securing the third Grand Slam of their history in emphatic style, they recorded a groundbreaking home success over New Zealand in the end-of-year Guinness Series. Add in a triumphant summer tour of Australia and it was reasonable to assume that this Irish squad were at the peak of their powers for head coach Joe Schmidt’s final year in charge.
It made it all the more puzzling, therefore, to find Ireland so far off the pace for their Six Nations opener against England in Lansdowne Road on the first weekend in February. Eddie Jones’ men threw down the gauntlet to their arch rivals and the hosts needed a last-minute try courtesy of John Cooney to bring the final margin down to 12 (32-20).
Despite Schmidt’s later admission that Ireland didn’t prioritise the Six Nations, they never truly recovered from this deflating start to the year. They subsequently returned to winning ways with consecutive victories at the expense of Scotland, Italy and France before Wales comfortably dispatched their challenge on the way to claiming a Grand Slam of their own.
A thumping at the hands of England in a World Cup warm-up raised further alarm bells but with back-to-back wins over Wales offering a much-needed jolt, hopes were high that Ireland could get it right in time for the World Cup. It was an encouraging start to their Pool A campaign – a 27-3 demolition of Scotland raising the possibility of finally breaking through the glass ceiling of a World Cup quarter-final.
They appeared to be on the right track when they built up a 12-point lead during the opening quarter of their second group encounter against the Japanese, but the host nation turned matters around and ultimately secured a shock win. Despite bouncing back through bonus point successes over Russia and Samoa, Japan’s unbeaten run ensured they were on a collision course with the All Blacks.
Schmidt twice guided Ireland to victory against the southern hemisphere giants during his reign and there were signs that Steve Hansen’s charges weren’t scaling the heights of old. They eventually crashed out to England in an absorbing semi-final, but not before inflicting a punishing defeat upon their Irish counterparts.
A 32-point loss (46-14) not only brought an ignominious end to Schmidt’s tenure as coach but to Rory Best’s professional playing career. Though opinion varies as to whether this tarnishes the Kawakawa native’s reputation on these shores, it is now left to his former assistant – Andy Farrell – to repair morale for the 2020 Six Nations and beyond.
The past week has seen him kick-starting the rebuilding process with a mid-season stocktaking session at the IRFU’s high performance centre in Abbotstown. Whilst Athy’s Joey Carbery is still recovering from the ankle injury that he carried through the World Cup, he unsurprisingly was included by Farrell for this get together.
There was also a place for Donadea man Will Connors, who has featured prominently for Leinster at openside flanker in the current campaign. Although they have also ended the year on the treatment table, it has been a productive 2019 overall for Munster duo Tadhg Beirne (Eadestown) and Jeremy Loughman (Athy).
Beirne made Schmidt’s final squad for the World Cup and whereas Carbery was restricted to three cameo appearances in Japan, the versatile forward was selected in all five of Ireland’s games.
Loughman is still waiting on a first Ireland senior call-up but with 30 Munster caps now under his belt, he is progressing in the right direction. Kildare quartet Adam Byrne, Fergus McFadden, Jimmy O’Brien and James Tracy are very much part of Leo Cullen’s plans at Leinster and will aim to play a big role as they continue their challenge for PRO14 and Champions Cup honours.
It also proved to be a tough year for the Ireland women’s team, who finished fifth in the Six Nations with a solitary win – an away success over Scotland – to their name. 2020 will be a big year for them as they look to improve their Championship standing and also secure qualification for the following year’s World Cup.
Brannockstown’s Jenny Murphy has finally left her injury woes behind her by returning to competitive fare in recent months. With experienced faces like Claire Molloy and Alison Miller stepping away from the international scene, she could have a big role to play in Adam Griggs’ set-up.
The exploits of Carbery and Loughman has helped to put Athy RFC on the map in recent years and another protege of The Showgrounds club was a prominent figure for the Ireland U20s in their springtime march to a Grand Slam title.
A former minor hurler with the Lilywhites, Martin Moloney was an ever-present in the Irish back-row alongside Scott Penny and John Hodnett. Having defied expectations by getting the better of a hotly-fancied England in an opening round clash at Musgrave Park, Ireland went from strength-to-strength for the remainder of the competition.
There was some disappointment in the Leinster ranks this year as they lost a European Cup final for the first time in May to English Premiership heavyweights Saracens. Still, they gained solace in the form of a second consecutive PRO14 crown – this time at the expense of Glasgow Warriors.
On the schools rugby front, Newbridge College enjoyed a march to the Leinster Junior Cup semi-final. They eventually lost out to an impressive Blackrock College, while their senior compatriots suffered a quarter-final defeat at the hands of Belvedere College.
In many ways, Naas CBS were the biggest story of the year in Kildare schools rugby. They recorded an unprecedented treble success in the Fr Godfrey Cup, Duff Cup and the Leinster Division 2A league title – as well as reaching the quarter-final of the Leinster Junior Cup.