Sinead Kissane: Why I feel sorry for 2018 before it has even started
The New Year has yet to start but I already feel sorry for 2018. Why? Because the year before a Rugby World Cup is one of continuous contextualisation whereby little can be mentioned or enjoyed without constant reference to 'the bigger picture'.
You see, 2018 is really about 2019 and the Rugby World Cup. A player won't be able to run the length of the pitch, skip out of tackles and score a spectacular solo try without someone killing the moment of joy by asking: "But will he be able to do it in the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup next year?"
The year before a World Cup can be an odd one. If viewed through the prism of 'the bigger picture', the achievement of winning the Six Nations can be dulled by a concern over peaking too early in a four-year cycle, while losing games can be excused with 'you-learn-more-in-defeat' propaganda.
The year can become a bit of a rugby no-man's land where the end-game is what happens in the World Cup the following year.
But 2018 is shaping up to be more than just an aperitif for 2019. It wasn't just Jordan Larmour's wonder-try at Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day which would get you excited about what 2018 could bring for Irish rugby but what happened just before that in the 68th minute when Dan Leavy won a penalty against Munster.
The sight of Leavy letting out two almighty, guttural roars was reminiscent of the in-your-face celebration Johnny Sexton delivered to Ronan O'Gara in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park.
Forget national relations for a moment - Leavy's King Kong impression was what the Munster- Leinster rivalry needed: a player showing what winning a big moment in a match like that meant rather than keeping quiet for fear of offending a player he may have to share a room with in the near future.
Joe Schmidt won't need the Leinster academy boys to fire up training (a la two days before the Argentina game last November) when the Ireland squad get together before the Six Nations, as Leavy's celebration is unlikely to be quickly forgotten by the Munster boys.
There is no need for 2018 to live in the shadow of 2019 because there's just too much to look forward to in the New Year.
The November Series was relatively forgettable but the first half of Ireland's win over Argentina was up there with the most efficient and effortless a Schmidt-coached Irish team has played.
Jacob Stockdale has fit in so quickly that he's become as close to an automatic selection as any newbie can be at the age of 21.
There's a back-up of talent and competition which makes you wonder why the notion of an untouchable 15 - like before the 2007 Rugby World Cup - was ever deemed a good thing. And to think that whizz-kid Larmour may not even get into Schmidt's extended squad for the Six Nations makes Allister Coetzee's proclamation in November that Ireland are "the All Blacks of Europe" look less of a ruse.
But, OK, let's not get entirely carried away here. Because with expectation comes pressure and this Irish team needs to validate itself with a Six Nations title.
Under captain Rory Best, Ireland made history by beating New Zealand and winning in South Africa but they need the confidence winning the championship would add.
Winning silverware was an annual occurrence for Schmidt but he's currently in the longest spell (2015-present) without winning a trophy since he started working in Ireland in 2010. At an awards ceremony a few months ago Schmidt visibly cringed when Ireland's second-place finish in the 2017 Six Nations was referenced as an achievement.
To some, perhaps, but not the Ireland head coach.
Following results like Scotland's comprehensive win over Australia in November, the 2018 Six Nations is being billed as the most open in years, even if England are going for three in-a-row.
It's a year when a few local quibbles will need to be settled. Ireland were beaten by Scotland and Wales in the 2017 edition, two teams they would have no fear of.
There was the Scottish bus driver's generosity in taking the Ireland team bus on an off-piste tourist trail the day they played Scotland in Murrayfield last February but what really derailed Ireland's championship was moments like being caught napping at the lineout which resulted in Alex Dunbar scoring a try.
And then, of course, Scotland decided to unfriend Ireland by not giving them their vote for the 2023 RWC bid. But, hey, let's not drag boardroom politics into it.
Try telling that to Warren Gatland, though. As well as his recent riveting stirring-up of his past with Ireland, Gatland also bit back at Sean O'Brien's Lions accusations as fast as an actual Lion did to a Welsh player.
Ah, what a tame and friendly Six Nations we've got coming.
If 2018 holds the optimism of building for the 2019 World Cup for our national men's team, it's hard to know what gear our national women's team will be in for the Women's Six Nations after a challenging Rugby World Cup year.
This year turned out to be nothing like we hoped it would be with 'legacy' turning into an act of defiance.
There has been no indication on how the steering group is progressing or when the IRFU's strategic review of the women's game is going to be published.
What we do know is that the sevens game will be prioritised over Ireland's opening Women's Six Nations game against France with the IRFU confirming that the nine sevens players in the Ireland women's squad will miss the game in Toulouse as they will be in Sydney.
What we also know is that Ireland will need the support of the public more than ever in 2018.
Next year might also be extraordinary for the provinces in Europe.
The last time an Irish team made/won the final of European rugby's elite competition was in 2012 for the all-Irish Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Ulster.
Maybe it was the pre-Christmas giddiness but it feels like the dog days are, indeed, over.
Here's to 2018, a year when Irish rugby could rise back to the top.
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