Sunday 24 February 2019

19 for 2019: Stars of the oval ball facing a big year

World Cup will loom large this autumn for the sport's leading lights

Joe Schmidt bids to bow out on a high. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt bids to bow out on a high. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúadhrí O'Connor

It promises to be a momentous year for Irish rugby and it's a pivotal time for these 19 people.

1. Joe Schmidt

It may be harsh to say the Coach of the Year for 2018 has more to achieve, but everything Schmidt has done since 2015 has been building towards this autumn and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

The Ireland supremo can still recall the quarter-final defeat to Argentina with almost perfect clarity and it remains the major blot on his copy-book; albeit one that comes with an asterisk due to the number of senior players who were ruled out.

Presuming they negotiate a tricky, but manageable pool, all roads lead to the weekend of October 19 when Ireland attempt to break their last-eight glass ceiling against either New Zealand or South Africa in Tokyo.

Schmidt will go down as Ireland’s greatest coach regardless, but increasingly this looks like the defining moment of his tenure as he looks to ensure his Irish sojourn lasts just a couple of weeks longer.

2. Seán O’Brien

After a succession of unlucky injuries, the Tullow Tank is in need of a clean run of form and fitness to get to the World Cup.

Schmidt took just five back-rows to the 2015 World Cup and every match O’Brien misses hands an opportunity to Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy to show what they can do. Centrally contracted and still world class when he’s fit, O’Brien is a trusted leader and important communicator on the pitch but Ireland have now beaten New Zealand twice in his absence.

Leinster have also thrived without him, but the evidence is there that the 31-year-old is a world-leading back-row forward when given a run a games.

The last time he got to truly show his worth was on the 2017 Lions tour when he was outstanding. A broken arm suffered against Argentina is the latest blow and he’s due back in the next few weeks. Avoiding further injury is key.

3. Rory Best

The Ireland captain will be 37 by the time the World Cup rolls and must sustain his pre-Christmas form to stay ahead of the chasing pack. Schmidt’s men won a series in Australia with the skipper watching from home and he was slow to find form on his return. However, he finished with an impressive performance against the All Blacks and some fine displays for Ulster.

Niall Scannell, Rob Herring and Seán Cronin are breathing down his neck, but Best remains the man in possession and knows that he needs to keep his performances high to retain the jersey in Japan.

4. Johann van Graan

The South African coach is a year into one of the biggest jobs in Irish rugby and, having reached the semi-finals of the Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup last season, is aiming to go further this time around.

On paper, Munster are top of their league conference and European pool but there have been recent wobbles that suggest the machine is not functioning at its best.

Their initial fate will be sealed over the next two weekends as they look to book their quarter-final spot, while the long-term project of finessing Munster’s attacking game will go on through the Six Nations.

Constant comparisons to the all-conquering men in blue up the road make life a little more difficult, but if he can keep his front-line players fit, van Graan has a chance of ending the province’s trophy drought.

5. Joey Carbery

Having made the big switch from Leinster to Munster, Carbery has shown his quality but also displayed some vulnerabilities in his game.

He moved for the experience and the game-time on offer and arrived with great expectations.

If he can get a consistent run of performances at the helm of the Munster backline, he will provide a realistic back-up option for Johnny Sexton at the World Cup and could lead his new province to honours.

6. Eddie Jones

The darling bud of English rugby from 2015 to 2017, the Australian has endured a thorny 18 months and faces into the World Cup year with serious questions over his methods and future.

Staff departures suggest unrest behind the scenes, but results have begun to turn in his favour and a win in Dublin on the opening day of the Six Nations will bring back some of the lost bravado and set Jones on course for a big 2019.

However, a third successive defeat to the Six Nations champions would put further pressure on an England coach who has been heavily backed by the RFU despite their financial difficulties.

7. Niamh Briggs

For so long, Waterford native Briggs was the Irish Women’s team’s go-to girl and poster-girl all in one, but injury and sickness cost her a place in the squad and now she is fighting to get back in.

Despite a return to form in the All-Ireland League, the former captain missed out on Adam Griggs’ squad for the Six Nations. At 34, she has resolved to battle her way back into the set-up and at her best she’s hard to ignore.

8. Anthony Eddy

Most of Irish rugby is focused on Japan this year, but for Eddy all eyes are on Tokyo 2020 and qualification for the Olympics.

The IRFU’s director of Sevens and Women’s Rugby has come in for deserved criticism for the way the Women’s XVs game has been run, but there is no denying the progress that has been made in the shortened game where both the women’s and men’s teams have a realistic chance of making the Games.

After qualifying for the World Series, the women have three bites at the cherry to qualify; while the men can get there by winning the European qualification tournament or the subsequent repechage.

Given the time and energy that has been applied to the curtailed game, getting at least one team to Tokyo is a major focus for Eddy and his boss David Nucifora. 

9. James Ryan

After the break-out year to end all break-out years, the possibilities seem endless for Ireland’s second-row who has quickly become one of the best players in the world.

Still just 22 and only 13 caps into his international career, the Leinster lock regularly clocks up big numbers in the engine room and dominates almost every game he plays in. If he can continue the run of form he is in, he could finish this year as a world leader.

10. Bill Beaumont

Rugby’s chief administrator goes into a World Cup year with special interests pulling the sport in different directions.

Player welfare remains an unresolved hot topic, core nations continue to be drained of talent by French and English clubs and the league’s there continue to threaten disruption to the established order.

New markets remain tantalisingly on the horizon, but rugby can’t ignore its key constituents as it pursues growth and leadership and clear direction from the top are essential.

11. Beauden Barrett

Knocked off his perch as the Player of the Year by Johnny Sexton, the All Blacks out-half remains the most exciting out-half in the business but retains certain vulnerabilities. His goal-kicking has improved and he has lashed over a couple of drop goals, but the Hurricane needs to show strong game-management in close games to prove he is the equal of Dan Carter who could do it all.

12. Nicole Cronin

Cousin of Leinster’s Seán and Munster’s Neil, the scrum-half was Ireland’s break-out star at the 2017 World Cup, but hasn’t been able to capitalise on the momentum of that tournament and has lost her starting place. Goes into 2019 looking to make up for lost time.

13. Declan Kidney

After a hiatus from the game after his time in charge of Ireland, the Corkman is back in coaching with London Irish and on course for promotion back to the Premiership.

The Exiles are top of the Championship, but Ealing Trailfinders are hot on their heels. Irish will move stadiums next year and want to be in the top flight when they do.

With Les Kiss at his side, Kidney is serving a reminder of his coaching credentials.

14. Simon Zebo

Named in the ‘Midi Olympique’ team of 2018 despite only arriving in Paris last summer, the former Munster winger is tearing it up with Racing 92.

No matter what he does, a return to the Ireland set-up appears to be highly unlikely. Zebo has the quality and finishing ability to add to Joe Schmidt’s options, but the strict enforcement of the IRFU’s unofficial selection policy will see him miss out on Japan.

Helping the Parisians to either the Top 14 title or the Heineken Champions Cup would be a timely reminder of his ability.

15. Benjamin Morel

The new chief executive of the Six Nations takes over a tournament under threat from the increasingly ambitious English clubs who want to compress the schedule. The prestigious competition has dropped in value since they rejected RBS’s sponsorship offer, but Guinness should bring freshness to the brand.

The jewel in the European crown must be sustained and developed, while Morel must also respond to increasing demands from Tier Two nations to open a closed shop.

16. Warren Gatland

In his final year as Wales coach, the New Zealander is putting everything into World Cup success as he looks to sign off on a high. If he wants to be the next All Blacks coach, the former Ireland supremo needs a real tilt at the title in Japan, but he has quietly built a squad capable of delivering in the Six Nations and later on in the year.

17. Conor O’Shea

The Italy coach embarked on a long-term project when he took the job, but at some point he needs to deliver results. The PRO14 sides are performing better and the structures have improved and the Azzurri will want to produce a notable win in this year’s Six Nations before they take on New Zealand and South Africa in Japan.

18. Dan McFarland

The former Connacht coach inherited Ulster at a historically low ebb, but he has already had a positive effect on results and has begun overhauling the squad at the northern province.

A strong finish to the season and a productive summer in the transfer market can help bring the 1999 European champions back to a place where they are competing for honours.

19. Max Deegan

The 2016 World U-20 Player of the Year has watched a number of his contemporaries become Ireland regulars, but he is in a battle for a place in Leinster’s match-day squad right now. Hugely talented, he needs a run of games to fulfil his potential.

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