ONE PARTICULAR GROUP, and their lengthy list of impressive sponsors, might have you believe that 2017 is all about ‘friendships that last a lifetime’ and all that guff that follows the Lions around like a bad smell.
However, much closer to home this year, there will be a lower key series of games that will be of much greater importance to the IRFU as they prepare to hear whether the World Cup 2023 bid is successful.
The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup will be played in Dublin and Belfast from 9 to 23 August. On top of Ireland’s shock win over the Black Ferns, the last edition delivered an excellent standard of entertainment thanks to the scheduling of the summer tournament and standards that are on a sharp upward curve.
Tom Tierney is still in the process of creating depth in a squad which has punched well above its weight in recent years. He will hope to build some form and momentum going towards the home World Cup too as his side have been drawn in the tournament Pool of Death alongside Japan, France and Australia.
Before we consider the sunscreen though, there’s the spring staple of the Six Nations to get stuck in to.
The 12 months just passed was the first year in which Joe Schmidt failed to claim a trophy since 2009 – the year before he moved to these shores. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Irish rugby who would accept a silver pot to replace the glass ceilings that were smashed in 2016.
Schmidt began the process of capping expectation within an hour of full-time in the historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago. So expect the ‘aw, jeez, shucks’ to continue into the Six Nations to keep minds off what, on current form at least, must be viewed as a potential Grand Slam decider against England on 18 March.
There’s a lot of rugby to be played before that Aviva Stadium collision course is fully set up. And a lot of players you’d like to wrap up to ensure they avoid injury.
Mike Ross’ hamstring is a serious concern for the man who was the cornerstone of the pack for so long, Jared Payne’s kidney injury will ensure a new centre partnership – most likely Leinster’s centre partnership – and Jonathan Sexton will have to get through the the closing rounds of the Champions Cup pool stage before Ireland can really start drawing up a gameplan in ink to reclaim the title won in 2014 and 2015.
Leaving aside permutations in Europe, Munster have the toughest opening to the year. Johan ‘Rassie’ Erasmus’ squad leave the festive inter-pros behind and bound straight into a run of three consecutive and crucial European games. Anthony Foley’s memory will be to the fore again when they play the rescheduled match with Racing Metro in Paris and they must tackle the French champions again after a trip to face off with a very sore Glasgow Warriors.
Munster’s run of excellent form in the wake of Foley’s tragic death was a great testament to the man and the team he built, but their European interest will soon fizzle out if those intense standards are not maintained in the next month.
The southern province’s Paris match will also be the first high profile contest played with World Rugby’s freshly underlined reckless tackle rule. The officials on the day will be extremely hot on any contact from the collarbone up, including twists and rolls in a breakdown situation. As the away team, Munster will have to ensure they are above – or rather, below – reproach, and they ought to have been the team with most emphasis on bent knees and hip-high hits in tackle tech sessions over Christmas.
It won’t quite be the end of a tough run of games for Munster, but their re-fixed Pro12 encounter with Edinburgh makes for a brilliantly fan-friendly start to the Six Nations. The Scottish capital club will be keen to make an impression in the newly developed Myreside ground, but there won’t be a shortage of Irish rugby supporters around on the night before the Six Nations opener in Murrayfield.
Being an odd year means Ireland welcome the two Big Bads to Dublin. The trips to Edinburgh and Rome will be far from straightforward, but having beaten all three of the traditional southern hemisphere powers in 2016, we should expect two wins – and perhaps a bonus point or two – in the bag before another grudge match with France on 25 February.
From there on in, the impact of the freshly adopted scoring system on the grand old Championship will be obvious. The hope is that Ireland can continue to show the adventurous spirit that yielded five tries against New Zealand at a neutral ground. The Millennium Stadium is not the place to go if you’re chasing a scoreline.
Week-in, week-out; across the Six Nations, Champions Cup, Pro12 and Premiership there will be a continuously reverberating echo:
Lions, Lions, Lions...
The speculation of who’s on the plane and who’s going to miss out while players insist they’re not at all focusing on the big summer tour down south will grow tiresome, so let’s keep this section short. Warren Gatland brought a squad of 37 players last time out with 12 Irish players being part of the tour at one point or another.
The way Ireland fared in recent months it’s easy to make an argument that that figure should be surpassed even before considering centres and the back three. However, it’s much more difficult to imagine a scenario where a hastily-gathered group can win in New Zealand. No matter how much money is pumped into the tour and how much Gatland points to his previous success, the continuity New Zealand enjoy under Steve Hansen and the style which they are capable of imposing on games will win out in all three Tests.
While the Lions are playing an old style of game, Schmidt’s Ireland will be in Japan – hopefully with a lot of new faces looking towards another Irish first when they return there in 2019. With Jamie Joseph in charge of the hosts, the two-Test series (ending on 24 June, the day of the first Lions Test) promises entertaining fare and it will be interesting to see how Schmidt balances the bedding in of new faces with the move to a more expansive brand of rugby.
One man who has made that an artform will depart these shores in June, but with a lasting legacy behind him. Pat Lam’s impact has not only been felt in the hitherto unseen confidence and belief in Connacht, but also in all the provinces they border as people realise what is achievable with time and obsessive dedication.
Lam presided over arguably the finest achievement by an Irish team in 2016 – in any other year it would be clear cut – and he immediately set the target of retaining the Pro12 title in 2017. There was no point in aiming lower than the very top, but for Lam to leave the western province for Bristol with a smile on his face, he must hit the target he vastly over-shot last season. A top six finish would maintain Connacht’s place in the top echelon of European rugby and make them a more attractive prospect for any talent, either in or outside of the current squad, considering their options.
The man who replaces him will be signed and sealed before the season ends, and his job definitely won’t be easy. Easier than it would have been without Lam’s groundwork, but impossible to outshine the Samoan.
Let old acquaintances be forgot…