Fea­ture Stats prove it: Ire­land are the best

Peter Jack­son chron­i­cles the out­stand­ing achieve­ments of the 2018 sea­son

The Rugby Paper - - International / Feature -

New Zealand end the year cling­ing to the top of the global rank­ings as de­vised by World Rugby but The Rugby Pa­per presents fur­ther ev­i­dence to the con­trary, that they have been su­per­seded by Ire­land.

Based on re­sults through­out 2018, the Six Na­tions cham­pi­ons go into World Cup year with a suc­cess rate of frac­tion­ally more than 90 per cent. It re­flects Ir­ish rugby’s most suc­cess­ful year dur­ing which they swept all be­fore them ex­cept the open­ing skir­mish against Aus­tralia in Mel­bourne last June.

They re­cov­ered, won the se­ries 2-1 and all four games last month in­clud­ing against the All Blacks who have now lost two of three en­coun­ters with Ire­land, on neu­tral ground in Chicago where they con­ceded five tries and in Dublin a fort­night ago where they failed to score any.

Against op­po­nents who fin­ish the year av­er­ag­ing al­most six tries per Test, the clean­est of sheets re­flects Andy Far­rell’s im­pact as de­fence coach. It was no co­in­ci­dence that when the world cham­pi­ons last went through a try-less trauma be­fore their de­feat in Dublin, against the Li­ons in Welling­ton last year, Far­rell hap­pened to be in the tourists’ cor­ner. Their de­fen­sive sys­tem hav­ing gone hay­wire in the face of a Spring­bok on­slaught at the same venue in mid-Septem­ber, Steve Hansen’s squad com­pleted the year in the un­usual po­si­tion of los­ing two matches out of 14. Af­ter sug­gest­ing pre-match that the win­ner of the show­down be­tween the

world’s top two would be the undis­puted No. 1, New Zealand’s head coach re­sponded af­ter­wards with a grudg­ing ‘you-can-have-it-if-you-want-it’ ad­mis­sion which stopped some way short of an of­fi­cial con­ces­sion.

World Rugby may base their rank­ings on a sys­tem com­plex enough to re­quire Archimedes as a con­sul­tant but The Rugby

Pa­per’s sim­pler ver­sion puts Ire­land very def­i­nitely at No. 1 with Wales hot on Kiwi heels in third place af­ter their most re­ward­ing of au­tumns.

Even the hold­ers will ad­mit that Ire­land are the team to beat next year. For the first time, they walked off with all three ma­jor World Rugby ti­tles at the an­nual awards func­tion in Monte Carlo last week­end – Player of the Year (Johnny Sex­ton), Coach of the Year (Joe Sch­midt) and Team of the Year.

Sex­ton’s wor­thy achieve­ment as the first Ir­ish win­ner of the award since Keith Wood in 2001 pre­vented Beau­den Bar­rett from com­plet­ing a unique hat-trick as the game’s No. 1 player. In­stead the All Black has to set­tle for out­point­ing ev­ery­one else just as he had done the pre­vi­ous year.

That Bar­rett also fin­ishes sec­ond on the try list makes Sex­ton’s en­throne­ment as the world’s No. 1 all the more com­mend­able. From launch­ing the guided mis­sile of a drop goal through the French posts at the start of the year to fin­ish­ing it with an his­toric home win over the All Blacks, the Dubliner proved him­self the mas­ter of ev­ery fly-half craft, the ring­mas­ter for Le­in­ster and Ire­land.

Not for noth­ing does Stu­art Lan­caster de­scribe him as ‘the com­plete player.’ “It’s ob­vi­ous what he brings on the field,’’ said Eng­land’s de­posed head coach now a driv­ing force be­hind Le­in­ster’s reign as Euro­pean cham­pi­ons. “But it’s the be­hind the scenes that peo­ple don’t see that’s the key to Johnny.

“I have loved coach­ing him and his knowl­edge of the game. His abil­ity to use that knowl­edge in the heat of bat­tle in the game is in­cred­i­ble. He sees things like few play­ers I have coached.’’

Sex­ton’s mas­tery of Le­in­ster’s PRO14 fi­nal rout of the Scar­lets in May came as close to per­fec­tion as Dan Carter’s sub­lime de­struc­tion of the Li­ons at Welling­ton in 2005. Should Ire­land achieve the ul­ti­mate goal in Ja­pan next year, their No. 10 will be­come the most dec­o­rated in the his­tory of Euro­pean rugby.

None of his pre­de­ces­sors won ev­ery­thing there is to win, from the Cham­pi­ons’ Cup to the Six Na­tions, a win­ning Li­ons se­ries to the World Cup. Even Jonny Wilkin­son only man­aged the half of it…

Ring­mas­ter: Johnny Sex­ton

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