A year that saw Ireland claim another Six Nations title has drawn to a close with big changes on the horizon.
For a year that began with Connacht beating Munster for the first time in six years and that featured a successful Irish defence of the Six Nations title for the first time, 2015 has ultimately proved to be a disheartening one for Irish rugby.
Connacht have done superbly to build on that win on the opening day of 2015 and Pat Lam’s side, along with the most recent performances from Ulster, is all that there is to brighten the gloom that seems to have enveloped the game here.
For the rest of the provinces, and for the Ireland team, there appears to be less optimism. The balance of power in European club rugby has shifted dramatically to those with the most money and it is likely that the provinces and their supporters will need time to acclimatise to their new reality.
Conor Murray and teammates leave the field dejected after the game against Leicester. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Similarly, Joe Schmidt has to go-about picking up the pieces after the disappointment of another World Cup quarter-final defeat, and he must do so without Paul O’Connell and Les Kiss.
Despite the absence of two of the key figures in the success of the Irish team over the past six years, I still expect Ireland to be strong contenders for this season’s Six Nations. With Schmidt at the helm, Ireland already has greater stability than England, where Eddie Jones is already making some enemies in his efforts to select a coaching team and a captain.
As Bernard Jackman explained on Off the Ball recently, Guy Noves is likely to have a tough start to his tenure with France after a difficult final season with Toulouse. Wales and Scotland may have coaching continuity from the World Cup, but both sides must travel to Dublin next spring and, not for the first time, the Welsh Rugby Union and their clubs appear to be on the brink of another row - this time over the central contracting system they’re trying to implement.
From an Irish perspective, the loss against Argentina obviously took the gloss off what was actually an entertaining World Cup, and the emergence of Japan is a really positive development for the game. Ireland’s tournament will be remembered however, more for the quarter-final at the Millennium Stadium and the image of Paul O’Connell clutching his hamstring in agony.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Although the team’s style of play was badly exposed against the Pumas, it was their management of the tournament and of their expectations that ultimately let them down. Argentina undoubtedly had the luxury of being able to target a quarter-final against either Ireland or France from the draw for the pool stages, while for Ireland, the sole focus was the game against France and avoiding the All Blacks. The emotional and physical exertion needed to get over that obstacle was part of the reason that they were so flat in the quarter-final - particularly during the opening 20 minutes.
Even after the anguish of that World Cup exit, the Irish team remains in rude health with younger players such as Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and James Cronin seeking to add new energy and enthusiasm to the mix, not to mention Garry Ringrose, and there are signs that some of them may earn caps during this Six Nations.
Instead of the national team, the real challenge in 2016 is going to be about the survival and progression of the provinces. Leo Cullen made it quite clear after his side’s defeat to Toulon that he feels as though the IRFU needs to give the provinces more help if they’re to maintain the level of achievement that they have delivered over the past 15 years in Europe.
The point, however, is that such a level of achievement (and expectation) was never going to be sustainable. I’m not saying that Irish provinces won’t ever compete for the European Cup (or whatever it is branded as) again - but to suggest that they can do so on a regular basis seems to be deluded.
All teams have to endure fallow periods and the important thing is to make sure that the structures and academies are well serviced during those times of hardship so that a new generation of potential winners can come through.
Provincial supporters will have to temper their expectations to the Pro12 for several years until the club structures in England and France have found a new equilibrium, where the club and country balance in both leagues is badly skewed and seems unsustainable at the moment.
Ian Madigan has finally made a decision on his future, and is leaving Ireland to join Bordeuax in the French Top 14. Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
There’s a real challenge now for the Pro12 organisers and the Unions to improve the standard of the league and keep the crowds coming to their fixtures. It’s something that the Pro12 have started to address, but they will need to considerably up their game in relation to half-hearted engagement of the Welsh regions and perennial weakness of the Italian sides.
2015: The standout moments
If you’ll forgive the indulgence, I’ll finish on three moments that you’ll no doubt remember from 2015 but which probably won’t make too many highlight reels.
Jamie Heaslip’s last ditch tackle:
It tends to get forgotten, but if Heaslip doesn’t force himself to sprint those 15 metres in the 75th minute to help out Tommy Bowe and then throw himself into another big hit on Stuart Hogg, then the Scottish full-back would have scored an easy try and Ireland would have lost the title on points difference.
Simon Zebo’s try that wasn’t:
Obviously the try didn’t stand after Zebo’s toe was judged to still be out of bounds when he attempted to follow-up on his own kick, but the sheer audacity was thrilling to watch. Even more impressive was the ambition shown by the Irish players (admittedly against weaker opposition) to off-load and keep the ball alive.
The move actually started several seconds before the video above, with Jared Payne deep inside his own 22 and identifying the opportunity to attack. It may not have counted, but it briefly showed what the Irish backline was capable of and offered us a tantalising hint that we were going to see a more expansive Irish team than we had seen during the Six Nations - turns out that we didn’t.
Paul O’Connell’s final game at Thomond Park with Munster, and I can’t think of a better way of signing-off. Tradition. Culture. Humility. Genius.