The unsung heroes behind Ireland's Grand Slam success
This group have been pivotal in steering Ireland to Six Nations glory.
All eyes have been rightly fixed on the dynamic duo of Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and his captain Johnny Sexton since Saturday's Grand Slam-clinching win over England.
However, there are others toying away tirelessly in the background who deserve just as much praise to be lavished upon them.
Rugby is a sport unlike most others, in that it has so many different aspects and components to games. As opposed to football, where a head coach can often oversee the tactical vision for the entire playing squad, rugby has too many intricacies and variations between positions for one man to take charge of everything.
Saying this is not to take away from the impeccable job which Andy Farrell has done since taking over from Joe Schmidt back in 2019, but rather to highlight the team component of rugby doesn't just manifest itself through the players on the pitch, but amongst the coaching staff too.
Ireland were at their lowest ebb for quite some time following the calamitous conclusion to the 2019 World Cup in Japan. But Andy Farrell, supported by the backroom quartet of Paul O'Connell, Simon Easterby, John Fogarty and Mike Catt, have managed to steer this Ireland side from near national embarrassment to national pride in just over three years.
The support staff behind Ireland's Grand Slam success.
O'Connell has made a marked impact on the Irish forward pack since his appointment to the role of forwards coach back in 2021. The 108-time-capped Irish second row has done it all in the game, commanding the greatest respect from his players.
The three-time Lion received his coaching education away from the scrutiny and pressures of the Irish provincial game.
He opted to hone his coaching skills with the Ireland Under 20s and later in the relative anonymity of the Top 14 with Stade Français.
O'Connell's steady ascendancy up the coaching ranks was clearly the right option though, as he has helped mould the Irish forward pack into the world's best.
Boasting impeccable depth in virtually every area and with one of the most reliable set pieces in the international game, the influence of the Munster legend cannot be understated.
During this Six Nations, Ireland recorded 60 successful line-out wins, all the more impressive considering the injuries to second rows Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson. Whilst two Irish forwards, James Ryan and Caelan Doris, topped the breakdown charts with five steals apiece.
Easterby was appointed forwards coach when he joined the Ireland coaching ticket in 2014 after Joe Schmidt became head coach, and helped guide Ireland to the 2018 Grand Slam title.
Although, following O'Connell's hiring in 2021, a switching of roles occurred, with the former Llanelli Scarlets back row taking on the mantle of defence coach.
Easterby has flourished in his new role, despite what many might have assumed as a reduction in responsibility, and managed to turn defence into perhaps Ireland's biggest asset.
The Irish side enjoyed by far the best defensive record in the competition and conceded a miserly six tries in five Six Nations fixtures, with Scotland the next best on 12 tries conceded.
Ireland now head to the World Cup assured that a leaky defence is certainly not on the list of concerns, with just 79 points scored against the team throughout the Six Nations.
Ireland were long bemoaned as unimaginative in attack during the Joe Schmidt era. Yet, they are anything but under the stewardship of former England utility back Mike Catt.
The 75-time-capped international, who has held the role for the entirety of Farrell's reign, has overseen a remarkable transformation of the Irish attack.
Previously just a vehicle for creating a trademark Johnny Sexton wraparound, the Irish attack now possess a wealth of weapons to dismantle opposition teams.
Whether it be set-piece strike plays, multi-phase attacking patterns or simply giving players the freedom to play heads-up rugby, Ireland are now the Swiss Army knife of attacking international rugby.
Like compatriots Andy Farrell and Stuart Lancaster, Catt is another English coach who has attempted to rebuild his reputation across the Irish Sea following England's humiliating group-stage exit at the 2015 World Cup. And rebuild it he has, with Ireland racking up bonus point wins in all but one of their Six Nations fixtures, scoring 20 tries across the five games.
Fogarty became Irish scrum coach in the midst of the pandemic, following four years in the same position at Leinster in which he helped the Eastern province secure a fourth European Cup and two further league titles.
Conceding just six penalties at scrum time throughout the entire Grand Slam campaign, what was once Ireland's Achilles heel has become a launchpad for Mike Catt's attacking system. These numbers appear even more formidable when one takes into account the injury-plagued tournament endured by Ireland's front row, which included injuries to the likes of Finlay Bealham, Ronan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan.
With the brutish physicality and imposing set-piece challenge that the Springboks possess, Fogarty's influence will be pivotal in ensuring Ireland top their World Cup pool this coming autumn.
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