The dust has settled in South Africa and Ireland has returned home from a losing summer test series. However, while the elusive series winning remains just that, it seems there is a real sense of positivity among the squad and fans alike.
Expectations were hopeful at best before the squad flew south this month for the daunting challenge of three away tests to the Springboks. Having never beaten the Boks in South Africa and sporting a 0-7 record, Joe Schmidt et al had a n eye on history.
Game one on June 11th in Cape Town saw the sending off of Munster man and South African native CJ Stander for a reckless tackle on Pat Lambie in the 22nd minute of the first half.
With 14 men, that first test victory appeared an even taller order than before. However, a cohesive and ruthless Ireland somehow defied the odds and the numerical disadvantage. A stunning 20-26 defeat of the Springboks finally put an end to the loosing hoodoo Ireland had endured on South African soil.
The nature of the victory, the manner of the play, gave fans real cause for optimism. This was the first time that Ireland has really played well together since the rugby World Cup clash with France in 2015. Injuries and retirements saw Ireland drag themselves into third place in the 2016 Six Nations but there a sense of gloom hanging heavy in the rugby world. Ireland looked to be on the wane.
Three months on and Ireland once again stands tall. Schmidt brought with him four uncapped players and Paddy Jackson stood in for the injured Jonathon Sexton. A new look team in some ways but with an historic victory under their belts, a series win was on the cards.
Game two on June 18th once again saw Ireland boss the bigger and stronger South Africa pack. Smart play and slick passing gave Ireland a 19 point lead at the end of the first half. History books looked set to be rewritten again.
However, altitude and inexperience combined to allow the Springboks regain a foothold in the game and with a blistering second half, secured the series levelling second test 32-26. Optimising tempered for Ireland.
Game three, the decider, on June 25th, began and remained a far closer affair. Gone was the free running, try scoring ways of the first two tests. It became a battle of the kickers and the will of the packs. A contentious yellow card to Willie Le Roux on Tiernan O’Halloran, shaped the game immeasurably in the first half however, when in a tackle similar to the red card incident from game one, Le Roux recklessly tackled O’Halloran in the air.
After hobbling through to half time, O’Halloran was replaced at the break by Keith Earls. A second half therefore saw a cobbled together backline that was charged with repelling the mighty Springboks.
Heroics ensued but alas, precision penalty kicking by the home side saw them clinch the decider 19-13, ending Ireland’s dreams of history.
While Ireland must now wait for another chance to finally secure a series win over the south hemisphere side and despite letting victory slip from the grasp in game two, Ireland has a renewed sense of optimism.
The old guard of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll have faded into hallowed memory and the new breed, raised on dreams of emulating Paulie and BOD, have been given their opportunity and it would take a cold heart to say that they have not taken it.
The worrying and potentially career ending injuries to Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, where once were like daggers to the heart, now seem somewhat less consequential to the Ireland team.
The Ireland squad is now refreshed with new blood, new talent, new ambition. They are now standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before and a bright future lies ahead.
For many, the trip to the USA later this year, where they will face the mighty All Blacks, cannot come soon enough. Ireland has been rebooted and is now ready to take on the world once more.