The 2019 Guinness Six Nations has been a strange one for Ireland and supporters of Joe Schmidt’s men.
Looking back on the heroics of 2018, Grand Slam champions and so much success later in the year, and it was always going to be a tough act to follow.
Ireland finished up third in the Championship table, a trio of impressive wins book-ended by defeats to strong England and Wales sides.
Sometimes you just have to take your hat off to another, in this case the incredible Grand Slam-winning Wales, while Ireland have learned much about themselves and continue to develop.
2019 IN A NUTSHELL
Two months ago the excitement building towards the 2019 Guinness Six Nations opener was palpable, as then-champions Ireland prepared to kick-off against England in Dublin.
The two sides had shared the last five Championship crowns and the two heavyweights clashed at Aviva Stadium – with England still standing at the end of it.
Eddie Jones’ men started at lightning pace with a try for Jonny May and although Cian Healy was the next to touch down, Elliot Daly and a Henry Slade double would come before John Cooney got a late consolation for the home side.
On to Round Two and the world awaiting an Ireland fightback – they got one as Schmidt’s men prevailed 22-13 at BT Murrayfield with Conor Murray, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls all scoring.
Hopes of back-to-back Championships reignited and received further fuel with a bonus point 26-16 victory over Italy in Rome, despite the Azzurri’s first-half brilliance.
A further bonus-point win would come in Round Four as France were swept aside 26-14 until Ireland met that Welsh cauldron in the final round, going down 25-7 as Warren Gatland’s men completed the Grand Slam in style.
The gritty away win in Scotland was impressive but perhaps Ireland’s most complete performance came as they kept their Championship hopes alive by beating France at Aviva Stadium in Round Four.
While Les Bleus scored two late tries, this was a controlled performance from the Irish, who secured the bonus point to stay in contention for the Championship.
The first half was dominated from start to finish by Ireland, running in three tries and with nearly 90 percent territory.
Rory Best got the ball rolling just three minutes in before Johnny Sexton and Jack Conan both crossed in quick succession to open up a 19-0 advantage.
It is hard to pick out a specific moment with Ireland controlling the entire first half, but just after the half-hour they really turned the screw.
Up until then, the French defence had just about held firm but the dam finally broke. It was a familiar move, with Sexton on the wrap, and this time Jordan Larmour was the dummy, drawing in Gaël Fickou and Yoann Huget as Garry Ringrose sent Sexton over for a trademark try.
All heroes in 2018’s amazing Grand Slam team, several key men returned to the Championship determined not to take a backward step.
One of the foremost examples of exactly that type of character in world rugby, Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony had an excellent 2019 Guinness Six Nations and was determined to turn the tide Ireland’s way at every opportunity.
Guinness Six Nations Man of the Match against both Scotland and Italy, O’Mahony is one of those individuals always thwarting the opposition and it shows in the statistics.
The Munster man made six turnovers, the most of any back row and only bettered by France’s Mathieu Bastareaud (7), while O’Mahony also won 30 lineouts, 11 more than next-best Grant Gilchrist.
Lock James Ryan did plenty to enhance his reputation in this year’s Championship and looks every bit an Ireland leader for many years to come, taking home the Guinness Man of the Match award against France.
Ryan also made 63 carries this year – only Billy Vunipola making more with 71 – which the Irishman may well have topped had he not sat out the Stadio Olimpico clash.
In years gone by one criticism levelled at Ireland was a lack of strength in depth but that was one put to bed in 2018 and dispelled even further this year.
We saw lock Tadhg Beirne make his Championship debut against Wales – we’ll be seeing a lot of him in future – while fly-half Jack Carty also debuted against Italy and earned minutes against France and Wales.
Second row Quinn Roux only had eight caps before this year’s Championship but now has 12, starting in the wins over Scotland and Italy among four appearances.
Perhaps the most impressive of all these though may be back rower Conan, who made his Championship debut against Italy last year and appeared three more times in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.
Conan, 26, started against Scotland and France, scoring a try against Les Bleus, and looks to have come of age this year to prove he can mix it with the best in a competitive Irish back row.
WHAT THEY SAID
Head coach Joe Schmidt: “The team will definitely grow from this.
“You only have to look back a year to see that England had gone back-to-back in the Championship and then they finished fifth.
“We’ve won 23 of our last 26 Test matches – we’ve finished third in the Guinness Six Nations.
“The fact we’ve won three of the previous five makes it less than it should be. We’ll be the first to put our hands up and say that’s not as good as we want to be but we’ll reflect, rebuild and go forward.”
Skipper Rory Best: “It’s a very competitive Guinness Six Nations and we’ve lost to two very, very good sides so we’ll have to go away and address why we lost and how we can get better.
“We always strive to get better and we haven’t done that, we’ve been a little inconsistent in this Championship and we’ll have to dust ourselves off and try to finish the calendar year strongly.”
In the immediate future many of Ireland’s players now go in quest of domestic and European silverware as the Guinness Pro14 and Champions Cup loom back into view.
In the Guinness Pro14 don’t expect any of Ireland’s provinces to miss out on the Finals Series, all four are currently in in the top threes in the Conferences, while Leinster have more points than any other side as they look to defend their 2018 crown.
It’s a similar story in the Champions Cup, Leinster looking to defend their 2018 crown and in scintillating form, they face Ulster next week while Munster are at Edinburgh.
Ireland then have a series of Rugby World Cup warm-up matches against Italy, England and Wales before that global showpiece opener against Scotland in Yokohama on 22 September.
Schmidt’s men also face Japan, Russia and Samoa in an intriguing Pool A.