SINCE THE CRUSHING series defeat at the hands of the All Blacks in June, rugby in Ireland has been relegated to the peripheries of the public’s consciousness as Euro 2012 and the Olympics have taken centre stage.
However, the start of the new season is now firmly on the horizon, with the first Rabo Direct Pro 12 matches kicking off at the end of this month.
The coming campaign looks set up to be a particularly intriguing one, as there are many unknowns, both in terms of the provinces and Ireland. The word ‘transition’ gets bandied around far too much in regards to Irish rugby but change is on the horizon.
Lets look at five areas of interest for the coming season:
Emergence of youth
Last season saw the surfacing of some exciting young prospects in the Irish rugby scene. At the highest level, you had players like Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo, who made such an impression that they were afforded notable game time with Ireland. O’Mahony in particular has the potential to be world class back-row forward, but development needs to seen this season.
Then you have the players who excelled for their provinces but have yet to be afforded a real chance with the national side. The likes of Ian Madigan, Craig Gilroy and Dave Kearney all impressed in the campaign just gone and it will be interesting to see their progression in the coming months.
These types of players should now have plenty of confidence in their own ability and should be looking to make the move to the next level and apply pressure to those ahead of them in the pecking order. It will also be interesting to keep an eye on the next wave of talent emerging such as Luke O’Dea, Conor Gilsenan, Jordan Coughlan and JJ Hanrahan. Plenty of promise there.
Tony McGahan’s reign ended in disappointment as Munster ended last season without a trophy, which is below the standards they set themselves. A new coach has arrived in the shape of Rob Penney who brings pedigree with him in developing youth; something which Munster desperately need to address.
Munster long stood as the golden boys of European rugby but the aura and fear factor has waned a touch in the last couple of years; as proven by Ulster in that Heineken Cup quarter final victory in Thomond Park. Penney does not have an easy job on his hands, in that he needs to oversee a smooth transition between the new and the old in terms of playing personnel, as well as delivering the required level of results.
One thing is for certain: Munster will be bitter from last season and hungrier than ever for success; a combination which they thrive on. Do not write them off.
Although Ulster ultimately struggled to maintain a challenge on both domestic and European fronts last season, and eventually fell short in the Heineken Cup final, it was still a season that will be viewed as a success.
A notable shift was evident in this team last year as they produced outstanding performances on the road as well as at Ravenhill; something they had struggled with in the past. Ulster mixed it with the heavyweights of European rugby in their exceptional Heineken Cup campaign and, for the most part, came out favourably. Again a New Zealander has been recruited to take the coaching reigns and Mark Anscombe arrives with a similar reputation to that of Rob Penney — a Kiwi with experience in youth development and a forwards coach by trade.
Eyebrows were raised when Brian McLaughlin was let go, having just guided Ulster to their most successful season in years, but Anscombe is the man charged with taking Ulster to the next level. Their recruitment has been strong with the arrival of Tommy Bowe alone something to get excited about for fans of the province. Can Ulster now take that step to the next level and establish themselves as a major force in European rugby?
Ireland head coach Declan Kidney and captain Brian O’Driscoll in New Zealand. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
A new Ireland?
Something has to give, doesn’t it?
Overall, Ireland endured a poor season last year — a disappointing quarter-final exit at the World Cup, two wins in the Six Nations and a humbling in New Zealand. There were positives to speak of too, like the win over Australia or the near-win in New Zealand, but these were overshadowed by a lack of consistency throughout.
Some new blood should emerge this season in Irish shirts as a selection of the stalwarts come under increasing pressure from their younger rivals. But is this enough?
The pressure on Declan Kidney has been acute for some time now but the reality is that his contract runs out at the end of this season so it is unlikely that any change will occur before then. Kidney will be in charge for the (important) November tests and even with a poor showing there, it is difficult to envisage him being shunted out for the Six Nations, with his contract ending in a couple of months time.
Either way, there needs to be change at some level for Ireland this year — whether that be personnel, tactics or coaching staff. The players available to Ireland are better than recent results and performances would suggest.
A Lions tour
What better way to finish a season than with a Lions tour when four countries will unite to take on Australia on their home patch. Anyone who has ever watched the ‘Living with the Lions’ documentaries will already be exceedingly excited and the rest will follow shortly.
A Lions tour is a little bit special and is something that has evolved marvellously from the amateur age into the professional one, whilst still retaining the core values of the ‘old school’ tour. Yes, sponsorship and money has changed the complexion somewhat but as a whole, the traditional tour values tend to remain.
The Olympics are great but the new rugby season can’t come quick enough.