Sunday 22 April 2018

We may have lost out in the ballot box, but there are reasons to be cheerful in pitch battles

Jacob Stockdale Photo: Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Kids these days seem to be very fond of comparison questions. 'Which would win in a fight, a bear or a shark?' 'Would you prefer to have no sense of taste or no sense of smell?' or, this week's favourite in my house, 'Which would you like to have for a pet? A dog or a fire-breathing dragon that was tame?'

In the same spirit we might ask Irish rugby fans, 'Which would you prefer? Ireland hosting the World Cup in 2023 or Ireland having a team that might win it in 2019?' Because although this has been portrayed as a terrible week for the IRFU, it has also been a hugely encouraging one for Irish rugby

The 38-3 slaughter of South Africa represented a significant step forward, notwithstanding the apparent weakness of the opposition. In any event said weakness may be somewhat exaggerated. The Springboks' 57-0 loss to the All Blacks in September hit the headlines but the rest of their Rugby Championship campaign was very different, two thumping wins over Argentina, two draws with Australia and a single-point loss to New Zealand. Nobody predicted a victory of this magnitude for Ireland. The ruthlessness and precision displayed were positively All Blackesque.

It has not always been plain sailing for Joe Schmidt, but Ireland at the moment do give the impression of a side coming to a peak. There is a sense of pieces being added to the jigsaw, perhaps the most intriguing addition being that of Jacob Stockdale. Just over a year ago the Ulster winger scored four tries in Ireland's run to the under 20 rugby World Cup final, but it's fair to say he remained largely unknown to the general sporting public before Saturday's spectacular debut. Stockdale's size and power make him a new kind of Irish wing, one who can provide a kind of attacking X factor.

The other most encouraging performance of the day also came from an Ulsterman. Iain Henderson has looked like the heir apparent to Paul O'Connell ever since impressing in the 2015 World Cup, but his career took a downturn when he was dropped after a lacklustre performance against Scotland at the start of this year's Six Nations. Restored to the side for the finale against England, he played well enough to secure a spot on the Lions tour where he was outstanding and probably deserved to get the nod over Alun Wyn Jones and Courtney Lawes for the final Test. Like Stockdale, Henderson adds something different to Ireland, an explosiveness and athleticism giving him an upside unmatched by any other second-row.

What strikes you about Ireland right now is the range of options available to the manager, something epitomised by the three-cornered battle for the loosehead slot between Jack McGrath, Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne. Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan in the back-row, James Ryan at lock, Darren Sweetnam on the wing, Joey Carbery at full-back, the squad bristles with players who did not start the last day but have the potential to make a major impact this season. The return of Garry Ringrose is another mouth-watering prospect.

So while rugby fans have had to endure the indignity of witless mockery in the Seanad among other things over the past week they are entitled to think that the last laugh will be theirs. They're also entitled to think that the IRFU did get some things right concerning the choice of venue.

It really is ludicrously parochial that hosting the World Cup remains the preserve of a small coterie of nations and it really was the case that all was still to play for after the Technical Review Group's report.

And, looking on the bright side, the failure of Wales and Scotland to vote for Ireland gives us the chance to portray our games against those countries, and against France, as 'grudge matches'.

Remember how every game against Wales used to be portrayed as our chance to extract revenge for Warren Gatland's slighting of Drico?

You can look forward to some world-class crowing in next year's Six Nations.

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