The battle of Soldier Field will live long in the memory of Irish and world rugby fans alike. Fifteen warriors summoned a performance like no other, one that will likely never be matched. A good win over Canada for the fringe players was followed up by succumbing to an aggressive All Black team last weekend. The future of Irish rugby is exceptionally bright right now, and with an upcoming Six Nations and the Lions Tour of New Zealand looming, we will look to these new stars as they try to launch Irish rugby to the summit of world rugby.
Leading this new breed is Conor Murray. Murray has been in blistering form which has made him one of, if not the, best scrum halfs in the world this past year. He was constantly at the centre of everything good about Ireland’s play; he exploited the New Zealand nerves brilliantly to run in his try, showed his versatility by converting a crucial penalty, and made a thundering tackle on Julian Savea that led to the final try and victory. He was never going to be able to repeat his performance in Chicago last weekend, and questionable refereeing didn’t help the Irish cause. If Ireland are to challenge for the Six Nations come spring, be assured that Murray will be the game changer.
When Brian O’Driscoll retired, Irish hearts broke and then froze in fear of what would come next. Well we can all sleep easy knowing that Robbie Henshaw is marshalling this team and filling the boots left by O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. Capable of playing 13 or 12, Henshaw is Ireland’s explosive phenomenon. He left nothing on that pitch in Chicago, emptying himself in attack and defence, scoring that unforgettable clinching try. Henshaw is a pivotal part in this team and was unlucky to be brutally injured last weekend but had recovered to watch the end of the game.
Ireland have sorely lacked a top quality tighthead prop since John Hayes retired, but now they have found one in Tadgh Furlong. He’s aggressive, mobile, and has formed a solid partnership with Rory Best and loosehead Jack McGrath. The front row made the New Zealand scrum look weak, and the form of the front three carried on into the second fixture with Furlong and Best at their peaks. They are supported by two important figures in the backrow in Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, who seem to improve game after game. Stander was also unlucky to be injured during the game last weekend but Heaslip stepped up once again.
The 52-21 win over Canada let us see some exciting new players such as Ultan Dillane, Garry Ringrose, & Tiernan O’Halloran as well as returning titans like Sean O’Brien & Peter O’Mahony providing encouraging signs. Joey Carberry & Paddy Jackson are flourishing at club level and with the constant injury to Johnny Sexton, their inclusion looks ever more likely. These players are making a major case to be in the first team. Australia were next up, and may have watched on worriedly at what Ireland have done to New Zealand, leading to Ireland being the first Northern Hemisphere team to beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in one calendar year in over a decade. Ireland now sit in 4th in the world rankings, perfectly placed for the 2019 world cup draw as one of the top seeds.
What a time to be an Irish rugby fan, or generally, a world rugby fan.