Exactly one year ago to the day, Irish rugby seemed to have hit rock bottom. On November 16, 2013, Australia took Ireland apart 32-15 at the Aviva. There was an ineptitude and lack of spirit about the Irish performance which, following on from a Six Nations Championship where we'd won just one game, suggested new coach Joe Schmidt would have his work cut out simply returning his side to international respectability.
Has there ever been such a transformation of fortunes inside a year? Because, starting with the wholly unexpected performance against the All Blacks just eight days after the Australian debacle, Ireland have scaled the heights to such an extent that confidence in the team is close enough to being at an all-time high. This year Ireland didn't just win only a second Six (earlier Five) Nations title in the last 29 years, they did it in the most difficult way possible, by winning the final game in Paris.
Last Saturday's victory over South Africa suggested the team is actually getting better. We have gotten carried away with victories in the past but there was something out of the ordinary about this one. Ireland were fielding an understrength side against a South African team whose previous match had been a 27-25 victory over the All Blacks and who hadn't lost to northern hemisphere opposition since Heyneke Meyer took over as coach in 2012. Ireland hadn't played together since June and Joe Schmidt had just 26 days to prepare for the game.
South Africa were big and ferociously competitive and Ireland creamed them with as good a performance as the team has given for many years. In the end, the Springboks were actually flattered by the 29-15 scoreline, given that their last try came in the final minute. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton looked as good a half-back pairing as there is in the world, while it was very encouraging to see the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw and Jack McGrath slot in as though they'd been playing at this level for years. It says something about the strength in depth available to Schmidt that last Saturday's team contained just eight of the starting line-up which won the Grand Slam in Paris.
The one regret is that the All Blacks aren't on the itinerary this year as you'd love to see how Ireland would shape up against them right now. Then again there would be a certain pleasing symmetry should the boys in green finish off this extraordinary year with a win over the Australians, who on this day last year reduced a large proportion of the Irish rugby public to despair about the future.
And after that there is a Six Nations campaign where both France and England must come to Dublin while beyond it shimmers the vision of the World Cup, that perennial punisher of Irish hubris. Yet with the tournament taking place in England the optimism doesn't seem quite so ill-founded this time. Beat France and top our group and a probable quarter-final with Argentina awaits. The All Blacks are in the other half of the draw.
But first things first. Australia await in six days' time. You'd have to say we owe them one after that match this day last year which made many people think that while Joe Schmidt was a fine coach he couldn't work miracles.
Turned out we were wrong about that one.
Sunday Indo Sport