Tony Ward: Schmidt has 59 Test-quality players to choose from
Unprecedented consistency and depth make us genuine World Cup contenders
Published 25/03/2014 | 02:30
We all know what happened post Grand Slam 2009 – the seeds of that success were never nurtured. Irish rugby did not go into terminal decline, but what we hoped would spark a new era of achievement – particularly at international level – never materialised.
The period that followed did, however, embrace what I believe to be the greatest victory in Irish rugby history when we turned over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. It surpassed Cardiff '09 or, with respect to the heroes of Ravenhill '48, what was achieved in earning Ireland's first Grand Slam. It did so because of its context.
Here was a World Cup pool decider against southern hemisphere opposition on southern hemisphere soil.
The Six Nations is still the jewel in the crown of northern hemisphere rugby but the 'Big Three' of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have won six of the seven World Cups, and the only competitive encounters with those nations – with respect to the Autumn and June internationals – come every four years.
The World Cup is the ultimate barometer. IRB rankings have a relevance, but only for their role in determing seedings for the World Cup.
Right now, we are ranked fifth behind the SANZAR nations and England – and that is just about right.
We are the only one of the home unions still to make the last four at a World Cup.
Even the beleaguered Scots achieved that, in '91.
Despite the manner of that win over the Wallabies three years ago, we blew it when misfiring badly against the Welsh in the last eight.
To describe that group as chokers would be thoroughly unfair but certainly, it is only now that we are beginning to deliver consistency of performance – a commodity Joe Schmidt has demanded from day one in the job.
In the New Zealander's second game in charge, against the Wallabies, we returned to old ways with a flat, sub-standard display, but since that, beginning with that heart-breaking loss at the death to the All Blacks, we have performed consistently, ensuring we are now very real competitors in every match we play.
We came up short against a better-equipped English side at Twickenham but still took the result right to the wire.
What was achieved at the Stade de France and over this Test season as a whole has been important for three critical reasons.
1 We arrived in Paris as favourites and carried that mantle – in what has long been our traditional graveyard – with relative comfort.
2 We backed up recent success in the Pro12 and Heineken Cup with silverware at the highest level in the northern hemisphere game.
3 But more than anything we played consistently to the maximum of our ability (including against New Zealand and England) and that has been the biggest step of all in the quest to become a major player at the top table – beginning in England 2015.
So as Brian O'Driscoll departs the game he has graced for so long, he leaves it in pretty good nick.
We are a long way still from the finished article but, as a work in progress, we are right up there.
Twenty-nine players were selected by Schmidt in his match-day squads throughout the successful Six Nations campaign.
They were Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Marshall, Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Marty Moore, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell, Dan Tuohy, Ian Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O'Mahony, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O'Donnell, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip.
Let us look beyond those players and examine Ireland's strength in depth, from seasoned performers to stars in the making.
Consider the following: Felix Jones, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Jared Payne (soon to qualify on residency grounds), Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Ian Keatley, Kieran Marmion, Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Rodney Ah You (now in the mix), Declan Fitzpatrick, Stephen Archer, Richardt Strauss, Damien Varley, Mike Sherry, Dave Foley, Mike McCarthy, Donnacha Ryan, Robbie Diack, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Kevin McLaughlin, Robin Copeland, Roger Wilson and James Coughlan.
That is another 30 and I reckon you could pick a fair starting XV from this latter grouping. That is 59 men making up the biggest ever pool of Test-quality players available to wear the green.
Replacing the irreplaceable at outside-centre is a gargantuan task but it looks like there are at least two top quality alternatives competing for every position.
That's unprecedented in Irish rugby.
We'll not be losing the run of ourselves, that's for sure.
But with our own 'Big Three' in the last eight of the Heineken Cup and filling the top three positions in the Pro12 – with Connacht coming up on the rails in seventh– it's fair to say that Irish rugby is in a pretty good place.
It is still a sad joke on all of us that we are not on the IRB Sevens circuit but in most other respects the IRFU can take a well-earned bow and then – like its head coach – get back on the job.