Feature Stats prove it: Ireland are the best
Peter Jackson chronicles the outstanding achievements of the 2018 season
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rankings as devised by World Rugby but The Rugby Paper presents further evidence to the contrary, that they have been superseded by Ireland.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