New Irish era coincides with lower expectation levels
Ireland open the defence of their back-to-back Six Nations titles by hosting Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday 7 February. But despite being the current holders optimism seems in short supply this year in the Irish camp following a very disappointing World Cup campaign from Joe Schmidt’s team.
Captain fantastic Paul O’Connell’s place has now been taken by experienced hooker Rory Best and with Irish provincial rugby not having a representative in the quarter finals of the European club championship for the first time in eighteen years rugby is certainly undergoing a big transition in Ireland at the moment. And with speculation that a number of high profile players were being tempted by big money contracts in France and the English Aviva Premiership the future of Irish rugby has seemed quite bleak indeed.
But the IRFU have since made the right moves by sealing the long term futures of both Keith Earls and Colin Murray. There is no doubt that the rugby landscape is shifting and for now not to Ireland’s advantage which is why any notion of a three-in-a-row of titles is well wide of the mark.
However the IRFU, led by David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt, will still insist that Ireland’s strength in depth can ensure them against the threat of the latest raft of playing departures.
But when the World Cup utterly undermined this argument, the pressure grows on the Ireland team in this Six Nations to do what the provinces have already failed to do in Europe, by proving on the field that Irish rugby can withstand the increasing barrage of off-field attractions.
The success of the Player Welfare System in keeping players at home was not merely predicated upon money and player comforts but also on success.
If the pursuit of success becomes more and more elusive, then it stands to reason that the tectonic plates are beginning to shift.
Ireland must shift the narrative during the Six Nations and only success can avoid the smell of a sporting institution entering a slow decline, rather than embracing an exciting renewal.
So roll on Sunday because Ireland’s development since Schmidt’s appointment has meant that they are now capable to taking on some of the best nations in the game. And unlike many previous campaigns there is serious strength in depth in the playing squad as well as competition for places in the team. Joe Schmidt’s coaching ability has also propelled his own reputation in the game but he must now show he also has the ability to manage the inevitable weight of expectation that is sure to weigh heavy on his and his team’s shoulders.
Somehow I believe Ireland, if they can play with consistency, Ireland could still be set for a year to match or even exceed an unforgettable Grand Slam year of 2009.