Analysis: Are Ireland now the world’s best?

Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations Grand Slam champions showed they can beat the best this November when they toppled World Cup winners New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin.

Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations Grand Slam champions showed they can beat the best this November when they toppled World Cup winners New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin.

Ireland head into the 2019 Six Nations with only one thing on their mind – taking home another title and cementing their place as the best on the planet.

Since the start of the year, Schmidt’s men have lost just once whereas the All Blacks, their rivals to be world number one, now have two defeats to their name.

Even New Zealand coach Steve Hansen admitted he thought Ireland were now top of the pile after their win at the Aviva Stadium.

The Irish victories, which saw them record a November clean sweep, were despite scrum-half Conor Murray and centre Robbie Henshaw, both key cogs in the Irish machine, missing for the Autumn Internationals through injury.

But one thing Schmidt can take from the four games is the depth of options who can easily slot into the line-up and ensure the level of play does not drop off.

Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath impressed at scrum-half while Garry Ringrose and Will Addison both made their marks in the centres.

The All Blacks fixture was the highlight of the Autumn but Ireland still recorded three more impressive triumphs during the month.

Six Nations rivals Italy as well as Argentina and USA were all dispatched in ruthless fashion as Schmidt experimented and looked at his depth of options; they didn’t disappoint.

Jordan Larmour scored three tries in the 54-7 victory against Italy in Chicago while Andrew Conway helped himself to a treble of his own in the 57-14 win against the United States.

Los Pumas provided the sternest test for Ireland out of the three non-All Black fixtures but a strong second-half performance meant they took a 28-17 triumph.

After overseeing arguably the best year in Irish rugby history, Schmidt will hope to go one better in 2019 ending with the Six Nations title and the Webb Ellis Cup before he stands down after the World Cup in Japan.

Stand out players

Winger Jacob Stockdale showed his nose for the line when he reached out and touched down, despite two defenders hanging off him, to score the only try in the victory against New Zealand.

His finish echoed the kind of form he has shown since coming into the international set-up in 2016, with 12 tries in his 14 caps.

The Ulster winger also featured against Argentina and Italy, where he showed his ability in defence and under the high ball.

What more can you say about Tadhg Furlong? Perhaps the best tighthead in world rugby is powerful and effective in the scrum but never caught short in the loose.

His tackling and carrying in the open field, and the level of fitness required to do it, is something to be marvelled at for a man of 20 stone.

Breakthrough stars

Josh van der Flier was called into action a few days before the match-up with New Zealand after an injury to Dan Leavy and gave a herculean performance.

He may struggle to usurp Sean O’Brien and Leavy in the short-term but it looks like Ireland won’t be short of a world-class option at openside for the next five years.

Van der Flier also impressed on his outing against Italy where he had five carries and 13 tackles from the back row.

Newcomer Will Addison made his debut off the bench against Italy and his first start against Argentina a week later.

The Ulster back showed all his skills as he played all 80 minutes against Los Pumas, making 33 tough metres on 11 carries and completing six tackles from outside centre.

While there were no tries for him in the autumn, Addison – who also spent time on the wing and at full-back in November – will surely be looking to the Six Nations to grab his first international try.

What they said

Speaking after the win against the United States, head coach Joe Schmidt said: “We already knew we had selection headaches in the back row and they haven’t changed.

“I thought Rhys [Ruddock] was really good [against the USA], I thought Jack Conan got more and more into the game as it went on. Jordi Murphy, he’s a great link player for us, as well as a multi-purpose player.

“On top of that you’ve got Pete [O’Mahony], who was outstanding last week. CJ [Stander], he just hits numbers that maybe only James Ryan can match.

“On the other side, Dan Leavy didn’t play. Sean O’Brien was out with an injury. They’re going to be selection headaches of the best sort.

“Second row is complicated. Front row is a little bit complicated as well. The back-line, we’ll potentially have a few guys back.

“Great to see Chris Farrell coming back. Sammy [Arnold] made his debut. Stuart McCloskey got through 80 minutes.

“It’s perfect for us, but it’s never going to be perfect when it comes to that match [the Six Nations opener with England]. Because you’re always going to be missing someone.”