Andy Farrell’s 33-man squad has landed in France for the Rugby World Cup and more than stamped an impact into the competition with a dominant 79-point win in their opening fixture vs Romania, accompanied by a blistering performance against the Tongans.
Some may refer to it as Ireland’s golden era, the perfect mix of talent and experience, our best chance at World Cup glory, and at the very heart of this team lies a certain proportion of Belfield talent.
Entering the tournament as the number one ranked side in the world carries with it the utmost expectation, to win the whole bloody thing. This, as many are aware, has historically proven to be a problem for our men in green, and not just a problem at that, but an impossibility.
The illusive World Cup semi-final has haunted Ireland through the previous ten tournaments, with an almost laughable seven defeats in quarter-final meetings. It is one of the great mysteries in Irish sport, in spite of the quality of players, the level of coaching, and the backing of supporters, a curse seems to remain.
This particular team, however, are different, at least that is what we are told, but it is very likely that this rhetoric is justified. A winning streak of X games, the longest-ever time spent as world number one for a Northern Hemisphere team (14 months), a head coach with a key to Dublin city all but secured, it’s hard to not get at least slightly excited at the prospect of the full honours.
We’re all allowed to get optimistic after all, how often can we say little aul’ Ireland are favourites to win an international competition? It gets even better for rugby fans hailing from UCD as a crucial cohort of the Irish team is of Belfield blood.
Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter, Hugo Keenan, James Ryan, Josh Van der Flier and Ross Byrne have all pulled on the blue of UCD before the green of Ireland. Not only are these men included in the full squad, they have all proved vital to Ireland’s success in the last five years.
Many looked to Ringrose as the next Brian O’Driscoll, the man to fill the 13 jersey and do it the same justice as BOD once did before him. That hasn’t exactly materialised for the outside centre, not because he’s failed to step into the boots of Ireland’s greatest-ever player, but because he is the first Garry Ringrose.
Making his Irish debut in 2016, his play exuded confidence and flair, extracting comparisons to O’Driscoll. Going from strength to strength with each passing season, Ringrose has established himself as Ireland’s go-to option at 13, with many suggesting he is the best centre in the world at present. It would be a hard stance to defend if you were to take an opposing argument, with the Blackrock man proving to be an unplayable factor when at his best.
His form has continued into Ireland’s opening two fixtures, with a couple of try assists to help bulk his chances of holding onto that jersey for the remainder of the competition.
There have been lingering suggestions from certain areas of the Irish media that Ringrose’s stock has dropped as of late, don’t listen to those voices. In 2021, the UCD club member wasn’t even in the general conversation to be selected in the British & Irish Lions squad. In 2023, if a squad was to be picked tonight, Ringrose would likely feature as one of the first names on the sheet.
Perhaps one of the most versatile players in Farrell’s squad. The 27-year old began his professional career as a tight-head prop, before adapting to the role of loose-head in order to be selected alongside Tadhg Furlong, rather than behind him. An attribute which will prove crucial to this Irish squad when the number of injuries to props over the last season are taken into consideration.
The former St. Andrew’s player featured in the same Under-20 crop as Garry Ringrose and has certainly followed suit, making his Irish debut in 2017. Since his first appearance, Porter has barely taken a stepback, scoring five tries in fifty-six caps, two of which came against the All-Blacks in Ireland’s first win on Kiwi soil.
Earning a Lions selection in 2021, Porter has been labelled as one of the world’s most dominant front-rowers, solidifying himself as Ireland’s starting loosehead.
What can be said about Hugo, the safest pair of hands in Ireland. Many feared what a post-Rob Kearney era would look like for the Irish, without their staple at full-back. Enter Hugo Keenan. Making his test debut in October of 2020 on the wing, he scored two tries against the Italians, forcing his name onto tongues and paper all around the country.
Keenan then featured in all seventeen of Ireland’s following fixtures, leaving no doubt as to who owns the 15 jersey. A man who rarely puts a foot wrong, he has gathered a reputation for consistency and solidity, widely being touted as the best full-back in the world.
Starting both of Ireland’s fixtures at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Keenan touched down a try of his own against Romania, opening the UCD account at the competition.
Ryan is another UCD man who has been overlooked when it comes to the international opinion, being snubbed by the British & Irish Lions for back-to-back campaigns. If anything, that has only propelled the second-rower to another level of quality.
Captaining Leinster & Ireland on many occasions by the age of 27, Ryan is a certified leader at international level and the obvious choice to fill the long-term captaincy role following the retirement of current skipper Johnny Sexton.
A current student in the college, Ryan can be seen in the odd politics classroom… when he’s not leading his nation out of the tunnel of the Aviva Stadium of course.
Josh Van der Flier:
A revelation in the last few seasons, the man with the red scrum cap has placed his grasp onto the 7 jersey and looks to have no plans to let go anytime soon. As reigning world player of the year, Van der Flier is a constant in Ireland’s process, a man who provides balance and effort on the biggest occasion.
Unlike the players mentioned already in his article, the 30 year-old had to bide his time before receiving a shot in the Irish jersey, often featuring as a backup option to fellow UCD club member Dan Leavy.
‘The Dutch Disciple’ justified his patience with his performances under Andy Farrell, leaving little doubt who Ireland’s number one at openside is.
Finally, we have perhaps the most, at least as of late, talked-about ex-UCD player. Byrne has played second-fiddle to Johnny Sexton for as long as his professional career goes back, with both Leinster and Ireland. For the longest time he was considered the shoe-in backup to replace Ireland’s all-time leading scorer. However, things have gotten rather complicated for the fly-half.
With the rise of Munster star Jack Crowley, competition for that 22 spot is as hot as ever. Regardless of his future with Ireland, Byrne has recorded many good days in the green jersey, doing Belfield proud.
Can Ireland defy the curse of the quarter-final? Can they do two better and bring home the Webb Ellis Cup? These are questions that will remain unanswered for the next few weeks, what is a certainty however, is the meaningful footprint UCD Rugby will leave on the 2023 Rugby World Cup.