- Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
The outstanding back-row's crowning glory in Monaco last weekend was a fitting note on which to end what has been a very successful year for Andy Farrell's Ireland. Van der Flier became just the third Irish player to win the prestigious accolade, as he followed in the footsteps of Keith Wood and Johnny Sexton, who won on the back of Ireland's unforgettable season in 2018.Back then, everything looked rosy, as Ireland looked on course for a successful Six Nations ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
However, things didn't quite go according to plan, as the Ireland ship hit the rocks. The challenge facing Farrell now, is to ensure that the same mistakes are not made twice. A November clean sweep of victories over current world champions South Africa, Fiji and Australia added to Ireland's historic first series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, and while they just fell short in their Six Nations quest, a Triple Crown is not to be sniffed at.
A year that began with a win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium ended with Ireland grinding out a gritty victory against the Wallabies to secure a record-equalling 12th consecutive home win, which was last achieved back in 2018 under Joe Schmidt. By seeing off Australia, Farrell's men also repeated 2016's feat of having beaten the Southern eHmisphere's three big teams in the same calendar year.
For all that was achieved, however, Farrell and his coaches will see plenty of scope for improvement, as they look to add layers to the game-plan and continue to build squad depth. All in all, that is not a bad place to be because, while winning when not at their best may not always set the pulses racing, Ireland have shown an ability to win in different ways, which in turn keeps everyone's feet on the ground,
Certainly, within the squad, the players and coaches are not getting carried away with the progress that has been made in 2022, and they especially aren't reading too much into their place at the top of the world rankings. Yet, Ireland's place at the summit does bring about certain challenges, many of which were not met four years ago, when things quickly went downhill following a damaging Six Nations defeat to England in Dublin.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the succession planning in terms of Farrell replacing Schmidt at the helm, was that the Englishman had a front row seat for that did and didn't work in that turbulent 2019 season. One suspects that Farrell is now well-placed to ensure that Ireland do not fall into the same trap again.
Toppling the Springboks at the beginning of November was hugely significant, not least because the physical make-up of the South African squad is exactly the kind of team that Irish sides have struggled against in recent years.
Ireland went toe-to-toe with the Boks and coming out on top was a massive psychological boost ahead of next year's rematch at the pool stages of the World Cup in France. The Fiji game offered Farrell a chance to dig a little deeper into his depth chart but as was the case for the disappointing Ireland 'A' defeat to All Blacks XV, some players may have felt like they could have done more to impress.
It wasn't glamorous but nevertheless, Ireland kept up the momentum heading into their final game of the year, which was always going to be a scrap against an Australian side, who have endured a frustratingly inconsistent year.
New faces have emerged, older, more experienced ones have reminded everyone of their enduring class, as the World Cup squad starts to take shape. Jimmy O'Brien, Jack Crowley, Jeremy Loughman, Cian Prendergast and Joe McCarthy were among a plethora of first caps handed out this year, as the value of the summer games against the Maori All Blacks came to fruition.
So too did the recent Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, as Crowley's rapid rise has shown how quickly things can change for those on the fringes. That's the message Farrell will be driving when the Ireland squad reconvenes ahead of the Six Nations. The feel-good mood, both within and around the squad, is such that everyone wants to be a part of it.
With a target now firmly on their backs, Farrell wants his players to embrace the pressure that comes with being the number one ranked team. Perhaps in the past, Ireland were guilty of being burdened by their place at the top of the world order, yet the current setup has a different feel to it. How they go about managing that expectation will have a major bearing on how they fare next year.
A strong Autumn Nations Series capped another memorable year for Ireland, but the page will quickly turn, and the focus will be on what's quickly coming down the track in 2023.