Tony Ward: 10 things that can make it a season to remember
Epic summer of GAA action has thrown down gauntlet to rugby – but if Joe Schmidt is given time in his new role he can answer our prayers
So we enter a new season on the back of a Lions tour and Test series success described by some in the immediate aftermath as "legendary".
Quite what inter-hemisphere head-to-head they were watching is beyond me because, frankly, Australia 2013 failed to register as anything other than ordinary on this rugby radar. Credit where credit is due to Warren Gatland and his cohorts for the comprehensive nature of the victory in the final Test but the stuff of legend? Spare me. Australian Rugby is not and never will be in a position to host a full-blown Lions tour.
For epic sporting drama, witnessing Jimmy Barry-Murphy's and Anthony Daly's charges in the flesh made for real summer quality, while the saga that is Dublin and Kerry in football took that competitive quality to another level entirely. No doubt we'll be accused of beating the Dublin drum, but both of this year's All-Ireland semi-finals involving the Dubs were truly legendary.
Of course, beating the Wallabies on their own patch was an achievement but even the most blinkered new-age Lions fan would concede that if the four 'home' unions (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) are to triumph as one, then it is in Australia rather than New Zealand or South Africa that such a goal is likely.
Beating the Wallabies in crisis under Robbie Deans in a three-match series was always on the cards irrespective of the build-up. For those unfamiliar with rugby in the three top-tier southern hemisphere countries, the Springboks and Kiwis operate in a different rugby environment entirely.
Beating Australia for the Lions is akin to Ireland beating Scotland or Italy in Edinburgh or Rome but toppling South Africa or New Zealand is on a par with ransacking the Stade de France or Twickenham.
So what does the Lions tour mean for those involved in the season ahead? Precious little, I would suggest, other than refuelling Welsh confidence given the eventual make-up of the winning Test side. From an Irish perspective, having 12 tourists including seven involved in the Tests must offer some degree of encouragement as Joe Schmidt takes up the role of head coach.
Personally, it is his appointment that excites the most, so in compiling a list of hopes and expectations for the new season it is the task at hand for the affable Kiwi at the top of this list for 2013/2014.
1 THAT THE NEW HEAD COACH IS GIVEN TIME AND SPACE TO DO HIS THING
It was his emphasis on the most basic fundamentals, none more than working in training on passing precision and accuracy in execution, that lifted Leinster to another stage in its development beyond Michael Cheika.
This is a different challenge entirely in that success or failure is compartmentalised into three distinct phases – November, February/March and June. Whereas provincial games come around thick and fast, the autumn, spring and summer segments to the Test season demand a different type of modus operandi for management.
Schmidt is no different to any other in that key respect. His new position demands patience from the public but despite enjoying the overwhelming support of the nation he knows that ultimately it is by results he will be judged.
2 THAT THE SCRUM BECOMES WHAT IT WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO BE
The great Mick Doyle was castigated when, as head coach, he once described the scrum as nothing more than "a means to restarting the game".
There was an element of flippancy given the Irish scrum trailed the 'give it a lash' philosophy essential to a particularly talented back line at that time. Remember McNeill, Ringland, Mullin, Kiernan, Crossan, Dean and Bradley? Unfortunately, however well intentioned, the IRB has made a dog's dinner of the scrum in the transition from amateur to professional.
Call me old school but there was little wrong and few injuries of consequence when the chemistry between scrum-half and hooker was every bit as important as power and position at impact in positions one and three. We live in hope that binding before engaging will lead to a much more solid platform and by extension far less time wasted at the scrum.
3 THAT CERTAIN LONG-ESTABLISHED LAWS ARE BETTER REAPPLIED
I would like to see offside (players in front of the kicker at the restart) more rigidly refereed. And the ball put in straight at the scrum every time.
I'd also like to see players in front of the kicker in aerial ping-pong blown for advancing before the kicker brings them onside. I would also like more leniency and common sense applied in the event of crossing in midfield.
4THAT REFEREES DISAPPEAR TO WHERE THEY ONCE WERE – ANONYMITY
There was a time when by common consensus the best referees were seldom seen and equally seldom heard. Now they are the main men and by God do some of them love it.
What players want from their referee is consistency in law application, clear and concise if limited instruction and common sense applied throughout.
This latter element is called sensitivity or in layman's language 'feel for the game'. It may not appear in the refereeing inspector's manual for assessment but it is the ingredient that marks great referees out from the rest.
5THAT SCHOOLS RUGBY RETAINS ITS INNOCENCE AND THE CLUB GAME GETS THE SUPPORT IT DEMANDS AND DESERVES
I worry greatly over the increasing emphasis on power and organisation mirroring the professional game increasingly infiltrating Schools and Youths.
Collectively teams are fitter, stronger and very well coached, and while individually more skillful, spontaneity is sadly giving way to the power of the system. For clubs the plea is simple to new-generation fans – give it a go and you will be pleasantly surprised at what you see. To borrow from the GAA: 'nothing beats being there'.
6THAT OUR GREATEST EVER PLAYER GETS THE RESULT HE CRAVES MORE THAN ANY OTHER IN THIS HIS FINAL SEASON
For Ireland and Brian O'Driscoll to get that elusive win over the nation we've never beaten at Test level, New Zealand.
7THAT ERC, PREMIERSHIP RUGBY, CELTIC RUGBY AND TOP 14 RUGBY HAVE A MEETING OF MINDS
The compromise may be complex but the scenario simple. There is far too much to lose for everyone concerned.
8THAT A LINE BE DRAWN ON GIMMICKRY AND GADGETRY
That ref cams, head cams, overhead cable cams, kicking tee cams and every other Mickey Mouse cam be binned forthwith.
9THAT SOMEONE TELLS THE IRFU ABOUT SEVENS RUGBY
Old violin, same tune. Need we say any more... for now.
10THAT THE IRB, IRFU AND BY EXTENSION SCHOOLS, CLUBS AND PARENTS GET TOUGH ON DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS AND THEIR WIDESPREAD ABUSE – PARTICULARLY AT UNDERAGE LEVEL
Too many coaches, while not actively encouraging their charges, are quite willing to turn a blind eye.