This end of year review comes from an Ireland rugby union perspective. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the clear highs and the lows from the year.
This review is particularly tough to write. In any year, a grand slam victory for Ireland would be the key storyline but we also had the RWC later in the year which will be tackled later.
Ireland were the standout team in the Guinness Six Nations tournament. They started the tournament with massive intent and quality. 10-34 road trip win over Wales in Cardiff with a bonus point try secured in the opening half.
The French game was an exceptional test match. Both sides played with flair and attacking quality. Ireland prevailed 32-19 with Hugo Keenan outstanding from full back. The side’s cohesion in defense and attack excellent.
Italy in Rome was seen as a banana skin. The hosts have recently given Ireland issues defensively and this game was in the melting pot until the final quarter. 20-34 result was harsh on Italy but Ireland secured the bonus point try win without playing as well as in the other two fixtures.
Scotland at Murrayfield was negated with a professional display and that led to a chance to secure a first grand slam at home. Ireland duly delivered with a vastly improved second half display against fourteen man England.
Hopes were high leading into the RWC 2023 tournament. The squad selection threw little surprises. Andy Farrell and management team retained the vast majority of the squad who impressed in the last eighteen months.
Routine wins over Romania and Tonga with 141 points scored but South Africa fixture loomed large. Ireland securing the win 13-8 due to their scoring execution. A massive defensive shift and the sheer physicality at the breakdown was exceptional at times.
Ireland survived the bomb squad (only just) and the Scottish game was put to bed early with unexpected relative ease. The stars looked to align for Ireland. Top of the pool but there was a massive quarter final challenge lie in wait. New Zealand.
I was laughed before this tournament when I stated that New Zealand would be a serious RWC 2023 contender three months out. Ian Foster and his reshuffled backroom staff had galvanized the squad and performances started to flow.
New Zealand had shown their potency with ball in hand in their pool stage fixtures. Ireland were warned but the occasion impacted several players. The national anthems were duly noted. Scrummaging penalty concessions from Ireland and the lack of adjustment to the officiating in that area spoke volumes.
Ireland fought defiantly to get back into the contest. Bundee Aki exceptional during the tournament but the soft penalty and try concessions killed the team at regular intervals. New Zealand’s tactic of committing bodies to the breakdown worked. New Zealand through. Ireland packing their bags.
Ireland eliminated at the RWC quarter final stage yet again. The end for Johnny Sexton. Management team looking for Sexton to conjure one more moment of magic failed to hit the brief. Sexton was soon followed by Keith Earls and Andrew Conway in retiring from the game.
An interesting 2024 awaits. Mike Catt’s departure means Andrew Goodman becomes new the backs coach at the end of this current season. Andy Farrell will look to evolve the side and increase the front five depth chart particularly prop positions.
A frustrating 2023 for the province. They were the standard bearers for the URC and Champions Cup for a large portion of the 2022/23 season but that position was relinquished during the business end of the season.
Munster Rugby came to the Aviva in an URC playoff semi-final and secured a memorable last gasp Jack Crowley drop-goal to beat a Leinster Rugby side whose squad selection lacked the balance and cohesion required to get over the line.
La Rochelle at the Aviva. A hugely impressive start from Leinster Rugby evaporated as La Rochelle’s pack started to warm to the task. A late try concession consigning Leinster Rugby to a final loss.
The new season saw preparations curtailed with several players and backroom staff on RWC duties. Jacques Nienaber is an astute arrival to replace Stuart Lancaster. His defensive blue print will be seen to full effect in 2024 but the early signs look good.
The ten jersey battle is a fascinating watch. Who does Leo Cullen go with? Ross Byrne was the successor in wait but Harry Byrne, Ciaran Frawley and Sam Prendergast also have hopes to secure the jersey. Four players with differing playing styles so which player complements the side more?
Leinster Rugby end the year on the up. A superb start to the Investec Champions Cup and a key road trip win to La Rochelle. The future is bright for Leinster Rugby but it is April and May when this side has to be evaluated. Silverware is required this season!
2023 year was a rollercoaster of emotions. A new coaching ticket and the results / performances were varied during the year.
A wonderful road trip result run at the end of the URC season saw the province secure playoff rugby and the side played without pressure. Performances followed in victories in Scotstoun, Aviva and then travelled to the Stormers.
Finals disappointment for the province were extinguished as Munster Rugby played with cohesion in defense and provided attacking threat where Jack Crowley, Calvin Nash, Malaki Fekitoa and Antoine Frisch came to the fore. John Hodnett’s cameos superb and his game winning try standout.
The URC triumph was supposed to be the platform for further improvement but there has been setbacks. The retirements of Keith Earls and Andrew Conway has left leadership gaps in the back three with Mike Haley continuing to rehab.
Peter O’Mahony was relinquished the captaincy. Tadhg Beirne has assumed the role but will need more leadership from his front row in particular to stem a mini-crisis within the province as the year ends. The Exeter Chiefs collapse is a low point.
Management and players need to respond with a victory in St. Stephen’s Day but with a loaded Leinster Rugby travelling to Limerick, the task looks daunting. Did the URC triumph come a year too early? Munster Rugby have a key four fixture block in URC and Champions Cup to keep their season alive. A fascinating watch beckons!
The end of the Andy Friend era which saw a renewed resurgence in provincial fortunes both on and off the pitch. Redevelopment plans underway.
The side went on a superb run of form from January to secure an URC semi-final berth. The Kingspan performance was on point.
Pete Wilkins has assumed the head coaching role. Continuity established with Fardy and Muldoon in the coaching ranks. A strong start to the season stifled with indifferent performances in recent weeks.
There are explanations for some of the losses particularly Bulls but there was a demoralizing loss to Leinster Rugby whose hangover continued against Bordeaux-Begles who strolled to a win in Galway.
Saracens loss saw some good attacking moments but defensive vulnerabilities were never far away. Fifty plus points conceded with sharpen minds.
A key fixture blocks beckons. URC stability required but with fixtures against Ulster Rugby and Munster Rugby looming large, Pete Wilkins and his squad need to vastly improve their performance levels.
There are positives for Connacht Rugby. We have seen the resurgence of Bundee Aki and Caoilin Blade continues to deliver excellent performances which should warrant an Ireland call-up soon.
The attacking play looks on point and if they can involve the likes of Paul Boyle into the side, then pack platform and breakdown nous will be reestablished.
A glorious opportunity missed this year for Ulster Rugby. There was an opportunity to secure silverware but the team failed to fire at the business of the season.
An outstanding back line on paper, I am frustrated when I see the team play. There should be more fluency and cohesion in the general game plan. The game plan is too formal and rigid. The social media montages and those early morning meetings have done nothing to change my thoughts.
McFarland is a head coach under pressure. There have been blips this season early. Seventh place in the league standings is unacceptable for a squad with consistent start performers like Kitshoff, Herring, Stewart, Henderson, Doak, McCloskey, Hume, Cooney, Lowry.
The Racing 92 home win last weekend in Investec Champions Cup action should be a positive catalyst. The side with tempo and played what was in front of them more. The coaching staff need to trust their player group to make decisions on the pitch. Trust element is paramount.
A key four fixture block coming for Ulster Rugby. A must win against a Connacht Rugby side who are looking for a win will tell plenty. Leinster Rugby fixture at the RDS is one where a marker will need to be set before key European fixtures against Toulouse and Leicester Tigers.
Ulster Rugby should have delivered silverware in recent seasons. This four game block determines whether Ulster Rugby need to go in a new direction and stewardship. 2024 needs to see a marked improvement from the province.
The All Ireland League continues to excite week in and week out. I do love the senior team provincial bulletins which highlight the players who played for AIL clubs that past weekend.
The games I have attended this season have been standout. Young Munster’s fixture over Cork Constitution last week was a superbly exciting encounter. The margins are so tight.
The 2022/23 season finale was superb again. Clontarf and Terenure College produced a superb finale. Caolan Dooley’s thirty point haul from the tee was the best kicking performance that I have seen all year.
Do yourself a favour and support your local rugby club. AIL fixtures kickoff again on the January 12th weekend. Several fantastic fixtures on tap! The competition is delivering standout talent across the leagues!