Tony Ward: November Tests are as important as Six Nations in terms of next year’s World Cup

Last season was the greatest in the history of Irish rugby. Not only did we succeed in doing what we thought was the impossible – a Grand Slam in an even year – but over the course of the eight months from November through to June we won 10 of the 11 Tests, coming up short in just the second of the three matches in Australia.

It was a remarkable season with Paris, and that drop goal, and Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, delivering incredible highs given the context of each.

We finished that campaign as we started – not knowing how to lose.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a colder March 17, it was Arctic that day in London, but it didn’t matter a whit.

We are where we are because of the remarkable talent we have at our disposal but also because of the efficient running of professional rugby by the governing body in this country.

The IRFU are still on another planet when it comes to duty of care.

Given the raw material, allied to the processes put in place, where we now are in terms of status was only to be expected.

When Joe Schmidt took up the Ireland reins in 2013 we were at our lowest world ranking in history. We were ninth and lucky to be there.

Now, five years on, with three Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam, a win against New Zealand, a victory in South Africa, plus that landmark series success in Australia, for only the second time, and we are ranked second behind New Zealand with just over two percentage points in it.

Pinch yourself. That’s little old Ireland, where rugby is at best fourth in the national psyche, closing in on New Zealand where the game is an obsession.

We will not lose the run of ourselves because there is a very dangerous schedule coming up. And I’m not referring to the Aviva and the drama set to unfold in less than three weeks’ time when Steve Hansen, Kieran Read and the All Black machine rolls into town.

Other than the odd ‘made-up’ trophy there is nothing tangible over the next four weeks.

Yes, the ranking points do matter but the real incentive, albeit psychological, is in building on the self-belief engendered over the course of 2017/’18.

Schmidt is the best thing to happen Irish rugby and by a distance the best overseas coach ever to come our way.

He knows the relevance of what may seem relatively meaningless internationals against the Italians on Saturday in Chicago and the US Eagles in Dublin three Saturdays on.

This November series is not about the fireworks on November 17, it is about all four matches.

The target for next month must be four wins from four.

Do I believe we will achieve that? If I’m honest, no because even on our home patch, in what is guaranteed to be a very special occasion, the All Blacks are still operating in another gear.

Standard

Outside of the Test and Super Rugby arenas, the standard of play in the Mitre 10 Cup – the third tier in New Zealand – has to be seen to be appreciated.

Can we win? Of course we can given the coaching genius at the helm. And I use that term deliberately and conservatively.

I will be astonished if the Ireland head coach is not already earmarked for the New Zealand hot-seat post-Hansen and Japan 2019.

Back to Soldier Field and the kick-off to a hectic Test year embracing 14 international matches before we pitch up to face the Scots in Yokohama on September 22.

This November series matters every bit as much as the defence of our Grand Slam come the Six Nations in February.

However strange that might seem, the psychological build-up to Japan – where the knock-out draw, should we make it through, is horrendous – begins now if we are to add a few more substantial bricks to what was achieved on the trip Down Under back in June.

Indeed, of all the Test games scheduled over the next 11 months, the last few warm-ups in August/September against the Italians, Welsh and English will be the least important.

A couple of issues also cropped up over the weekend.

In the summer World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper suggested that the power of the Television Match Official (TMO) to interject would be pared back. Unfortunately that is not proving to be the case.

How often do we see referees getting caught up in conversation with the TMO while the game is live.

Apart from the referee being unable to concentrate fully on what he is seeing, it is shifting rugby ever closer to the stop-start nature of American football.

In the Munster/Glasgow game at Thomond the interjection regarding the grounding of the ball for a breathtaking Warriors try was frustrating but sadly typical of what is developing.

The same afternoon I watched Ross Byrne’s younger brother Harry deliver a masterclass for Lansdowne against Cork Con in the AIL. He’s now ready.

Irish Independent

Source: independent/ie

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