Connacht look like they are finally coming of age. After a second successive season in the Heineken Cup, they performed admirably with 3 wins, including a fantastic win over Biarritz. Domestically, they finished in 8th position, their best position ever, which is about where they should be finishing. With a ever improving squad, with plenty of young talent that keep getting better, the likes of Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O'Halloran and Kieran Marmion will want to improve on 8th and start challenging for qualification from the pool stages.
Possibly not the best season by their elevated standards over the last few years, but any season that ends with two trophies has to be considered as positive. Being put in Clermont's pool in the Heineken Cup meant that qualifying was always going to be a challenge, and a midseason dip didn't help matters. But as all good teams do, they carved out wins, and ended up at the business end of the season with two finals, winning both and using a large number of their squad. Joe may have left for higher honours, and other key players like Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Heinke van der Merwe may be leaving, but with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen signed on, and Mike McCarthy and Matt O'Connor incoming, Leinster will look to continue their trophy winning form and building on some exciting talent in Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and Luke McGrath.
A team in transition will sum up their year. Fans seems disenchanted with new coach Rob Penney's plan for the team in the initial part of the year. However, fortunes turned with a historic win over Harlequins in the Stoop, and despite being out of contention in the Rabo Pro 12 for the first time in years, there are plenty of optimism going forward. Conor Murray finally stepped up to the challenge, and with players now buying into the plan, and Paul O'Connell maintaining fitness, Munster won't be too far away the top 4 next season. The departures of Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett will hurt them, but with Simon Zebo, Peter O'Mahony and Murray growing in stature, players like Ian Keatley and CJ Stander have big seasons ahead of them.
What seemed like a great season in the making suffered a devastating dip after Christmas. A remarkable run of victories in difficult circumstances at the start of the year was something to behold, but the rails came off with their first loss of the season vs Northampton in Round 4 of the Heineken Cup. That's their first loss in December! A large number of talented youngsters appeared this season, with Niall Annett, Peter Nelson, Stuart Olding, Chris Cochrane, Ricky Andrew and Michael Allen impressing. The likes of Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson have had good seasons, and will look to kick on and firmly establish themselves in the Irish setup. The final loss last weekend will strengthen them, and will be in a strong position for larger honours next year. Watch out, we could be set for a period of Northern dominance.
Irish based Team of the Season
1. Dave Kilcoyne
2nd choice: Tom Court
There were some strong contenders, with Cian Healy and Jack McGrath impressing in bits this year. Callum Black was an able replacement for Ulster, and Denis Buckley showed he has promise, but a huge breakout year for Dave Kilcoyne, where he cemented himself as Ireland's 2nd choice no.1, and looks set to drive Cian Healy to improve year on year to keep his position. Tom Court had a great year after being written off after the fiasco against England in the previous year's 6 Nations.
2. Rory Best
2nd choice: Mike Sherry
Now that he's rightly in the Lions set up, we can look back at how good Rory Best was this year. One of Ireland's best performers in the 6 Nations, Best was awesome around the park, making turnovers, driving the strong Ulster scrum and being a leader in any team he played in. The Lions will be stronger for his inclusion. Mike Sherry has now established himself as Munster no.1, and seems to have usurped Sean Cronin as third in line to Best's Ireland jersey. Harris Wright had a strong season, and Strauss was decent but was injured for too much of the season.
3. John Afoa
2nd choice: Nathan White
John Afoa was a rock for Ulster this year. An extremely fierce scrummager, who offers plenty around the park too, Afoa is one of Europe's premier tightheads. Mike Ross looked tired all season, and BJ Botha has had better seasons.
4. Mike McCarthy
2nd choice: Michael Swift
McCarthy more than proved that he wasn't a token Connacht selection in the Irish setup with an impressive performance in the 6 Nations. His partnership with his second row partner Michael Swift was one of the reasons for Connacht's good season.
5. Donnacha Ryan
2nd choice: Dan Tuohy
Donnacha Ryan has come of age. He grew in stature this season in the absence of Paul O'Connell even though he seemed to fade a little bit when the great man returned. Such was Ryan's great season that he was being spoken as being unlucky to have missed out on Lions selection in some areas.
6. Iain Henderson
2nd choice: Robbie Diack
Much has been made of the talent of Iain Henderson. However it took him until midway through this season to show me his devastating ball-carrying abilities that lift teams. A future beckons on the international stage, perhaps at second row, but for now he had a great season at blindside. Needs to continue to improve next season and work even harder.
7. Tommy O'Donnell
2nd choice: Chris Henry
How Tommy O'Donnell is still uncapped for Ireland I'll never know. Probably my player of the season, O'Donnell stood up and fronted up like no other Munster player this season. Now Ireland's best openside, Schmidt could do worse than build his backrow around him next season.
8. Nick Williams
2nd choice: Peter O'Mahony
The IRUPA player of the year was devastating this year, showing a bigger workrate and ball carrying devastation than was seen during his time at Munster. Jamie Heaslip only contended in the last few weeks, while O'Mahony got better as the campaign went on.
9. Kieran Marmion
2nd choice: Conor Murray
The only player to start every game of the Rabo Pro12, Marmion has had a hugely successful breakout year, directly after graduating from the under 20s. His selection on the US tour is just reward for a fine season where he displayed maturity beyond his 21 years.
10. Ian Madigan
2nd choice: Jonathan Sexton
Whatever about Marmion's breakout year, Madigan rose to crazy heights this year. Firmly establishing himself as backup outhalf on the national stage after starring in Leinster's run in, and cementing his position as first choice once Sexton leaves. Sexton himself didn't have a bad season, and the national team missed him more than anyone once he was ruled out of the 6 Nations.
11. Simon Zebo
2nd choice: Isa Nacewa
Zebo is another to have a "breakout" year of sorts. Although he was established in the Munster set up, he's gone on to national prominence and his bit of skill against Wales was revered throughout the world
12. Luke Marshall
2nd choice: Dave McSharry
What a player Luke Marshall is. For more on my thoughts about him, check out my article that came out the day he was named in the side to play Scotland. If it wasn't for all of the concussions, young Luke might have been the bolter everyone wanted for the Lions. He is someone who has it all, and needs to be managed carefully next season.
13. Darren Cave
2nd choice: Brian O'Driscoll
Cave enjoyed a wonderful season in Ulster, and seems to enjoy playing outside Olding or Marshall and with running off the magicians that are Pienaar and Payne. Contenders in outside centre were hard to come by, and O'Driscoll gets in on his limited gametime.
14. Andrew Trimble
2nd choice: Craig Gilroy
For someone who scored as many tries, and important tries, for their province as Andrew Trimble did this season, it's baffling that he ends the season as low down on the international pecking order as he did. Trimble was one of Ulster's best performers, and with Gilroy and Bowe performing well when injured, Trimble has stepped up to the challenge to keep his spot in the Ulster XV.
15. Jared Payne
2nd choice: Robbie Henshaw
What can you say about Jared Payne? He is just a magician. He is one of the reasons why Ulster were so much better than last year. He's one of the reasons why the difference between Leinster and Ulster was reduced by 24 points in a year. He will be a huge asset to Ireland when he qualifies. Robbie Henshaw had a great breakthrough year too directly out of school. He has a bright future ahead of him.