Ireland: The Year Ahead

A new era of Irish rugby has begun.

A new era of Irish rugby has begun.

The disappointment of their World Cup quarter-final loss to the All Blacks must be consigned to history.

Andy Farrell is now the man in charge, the trophy-laden Joe Schmidt era is dead and gone, and Ireland are looking to rebuild.

Along with Schmidt, Ireland have also lost scrum coach Greg Feek and their skipper Rory Best.

Farrell – who is stepping up to the top job for the first time in his career – has already signed up his new back-room staff.

Mike Catt rejoins Farrell as attack coach while John Fogarty takes over as scrum coach, the rest of the team  staff continues from the Schmidt reign with Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy in situ – although the former is expected to take on the role of defence coach.

But Farrell’s next order of business must be deciding who his first captain will be after Best.

There are no shortage of candidates, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony stand out, but it might be time for a clean slate and Farrell might look to the future.

That could bring lock James Ryan into consideration, and Farrell must decide whether he is building to the next World Cup already.

Jack Conan’s foot injury, sustained at the World Cup, will keep him out of contention for the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.

But there are plenty of back-row options in his stead.

Indeed, there is a young nucleus of a side for Farrell that could last to the next World Cup and beyond.

The likes of Ryan, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter are all 24 or younger.

Does Farrell hand them the keys now and look to build around this youthful core, or does he keep his experienced cast – the likes of Sexton, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy – around to guide the next generation?

The back row needs attention, as mentioned above, with Dan Leavy still on the long-term absentee list with his knee problem.

But Leinster’s conveyor belt continues to produce, and the likes of Scott Penny, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris have all caught the eye this early season.

Niall Scannell appears to be the front runner for Best’s No.2 jersey, particularly with Sean Cronin injured, but Munster’s Rhys Marshall and Leinster’s newcomer Ronan Kelleher could yet come into the equation.

There are questions to be answered, but the Irish provinces are all very strong and deep and Farrell does not have to look too far for potential solutions.

It was not that long ago that Ireland were sweeping all before them on their way to a 2018 Grand Slam.

But they struggled to replicate that form this year, so in 2020 it will be all about restoring that previous dominance.

The 2020 Guinness Six Nations fixture list is a kind one, on paper at least, with three home games including two on the bounce to open up the 2020 campaign against first Scotland and then Wales.

A rest week before a testing trip to Twickenham will be fascinating in round three before they round out the Championship by welcoming Italy and then heading to Paris for the last game of Super Saturday.

Farrell’s troops then can eye up a two-Test summer tour to Australia before they welcome the Wallabies back to the Aviva in the autumn along with clashes against world champions South Africa and a revenge mission against their World Cup conquerors Japan.