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The current state of the Irish international team can only be described as positive.
The team is performing fantastic, and the belief seems to be at an all time high.
A year out from a world cup there is a sense that this team really has the potential to do something great. However, 12 months is a long time and as we have seen before, potential does not mean success.
What I like about this team:
They play a lovely brand of rugby that is not only affective but also a joy to watch. Andy Farrell has got this team playing great rugby that beats great teams. Playing nice rugby and winning games is not easy to do. South Africa won the last world cup and although very successful, I wouldn’t say I love to watch them play. The last Lions test in South Africa for example, although the games were close and incredibly intense, the quality of rugby on show especially from the Lions was far from sexy. They played a certain way that they knew gave them the best chance of winning the series. If they tried to play sexy, they would have been beaten well. What Andy Farrell and his team have done is create a team that can do a bit of both. They can slow it down when needed and play a forward dominant game. They can also play expansive and get the ball moving quick when the situation calls for it. Not an easy feat.
There does seem to be a real depth no that there hasn’t been in Irish teams of the past.
Now I am not saying that Ireland are incredibly deep, and we still are very reliant on one man especially which I will get to. In most positions though, if the number one selection is injured, we have a man to step up and fill his place. Last weekend we saw it with the centres. The three main selections have been Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose. Both Robbie and Bundee were not available to play South Africa. Stuart McCloskey who has been in great form for Ulster this year started and started well. More than held his own before having to come off injured. Then Jimmy O’Brien comes on for his Irish debut who plays his club rugby for Leinster at full-back or on the wing and he plays great, and Ireland don’t seem to miss a beat. That is serious depth in that position.
In the pack we also saw Tadhg Furlong go off at half time due to injury. Furlong is one of our best players and truly a world class talent. He is a huge piece of what makes Ireland great. Connacht’s Finlay Bealham came on to replace and Ireland didn’t take a step back with him on the pitch. I am not saying Finlay is on Tadhg’s level but for a world cup when injuries happen.
It’s great to know Finlay can come on and go toe to toe with the best pack in the world.
Our back row is the deepest area by far. Ireland has a group of at least 6 back rowers who if any of these six started I wouldn’t lose any confidence is the team. Not to mention Dan Leavy unfortunately retired this year and Will Connors can’t seem to stay healthy. Two incredible talents themselves.
What worries me:
The biggest question mark is still the reliance on Johnny Sexton. Sexton is by far the best 10 Ireland has. The team is built around his strengths and when Ireland play at their best it usually means Sexton is pulling the strings. Andy Farrell has stuck with Joey Carberry as his number two. Joey has not found his form in the past two years. He will have the odd, good game here and there but nowhere consistent enough for his potential all those years ago.
Jack Carty last year definitely played well enough to get some game time ahead of Joey in an Irish jersey, but we only saw it for 90 seconds against France and then no more.
Carty was injured to start this season and hasn’t played to his absolute best since return so understandable this year that he hasn’t been included.
The Byrne brothers have not progressed as Farrell will have wanted and Billy Burns in Ulster has never fully recovered from when he got his chance in a green jersey a few years ago. So, Joey it is and will be for the World cup. The thing is that Farrell doesn’t seem to trust him still at this stage. We still see Johnny play seventy plus minutes. Joey came on against SA with three minutes to go. He wont benefit from that or get better from that. None of these matters of course if Johnny stays healthy through the world cup. That is a big if. If Ireland are to get deep into a world cup, we will need Johnny to stay healthy.
My last worry is what derailed Ireland four years ago. Ireland didn’t keep evolving and plateaued.
The rest of the world figured them out and it was over. Sexton and Farrell have been very focal about this, however. They keep saying that the goal is to keep improving. This gives me hope that they will continue to evolve and ideally keep getting better. They definitely have a squad that is good enough to win a world cup. I am not sure you could really say that about previous Irish squads. We might have had 15’s that were good enough but not 23 players. It is still so far away but I for one am looking forward to the next twelve months.