They may have suffered another heart-breaking World Cup exit, but Ireland’s garden has never been rosier.
Johnny Sexton may be gone – shuffled into retirement two matches sooner than planned – but when the dust settles following a thrilling tournament, Ireland will still boast a world-class squad and a brilliant coach. Optimism should be plentiful.
Their next four-year cycle starts in Marseille on February 2, an evening that can’t come soon enough as it heralds the arrival of Rugby’s Greatest Championship and the start of their Grand Slam defence.
2024 Guinness Six Nations tickets: Ireland
There will be tweaks, of course. New faces will emerge, old ones will depart, but Ireland’s production line of world-class talent is showing no signs of slowing down, and there is a real sense that this golden age is nowhere near finished – despite the natural disappointment of an eighth World Cup quarter-final defeat.
What comes next is anyone’s guess but expect Ireland to be at the heart of any title fight once again.
World Cup performance
It all started so well for Ireland.
Drawn into a ‘group of death’ alongside South Africa and Scotland, they were so good in those first four weeks that winning the trophy was at the forefront of their minds.
After Romania and Tonga were comfortably dispatched, Ireland faced their first major challenge on September 23 against the defending champion Springboks.
In an awesome contest, Ireland underlined their status as the world’s number-one ranked team with a gritty and resilient win built on Mack Hansen’s first-half try and Sexton’s boot.
In a thrilling finish, South Africa piled on the pressure but Ireland’s defence soaked it all up and turned over a late maul to seal a famous 13-8 win.
The group then came down to their meeting with Scotland in the final round of games. With South Africa in the mix, only two teams could progress to the quarter-finals and Ireland had to win to confirm their place.
Scotland were ranked fifth in the world but they had no answer to Ireland’s brilliance, as James Lowe’s try inside two minutes set the tone in a dominant 36-14 win.
Next up: the All Blacks. Ireland rebounded from a slow start, that saw them fall 13-0 behind, superbly as tries from Bundee Aki and Jamison Gibson-Park reduced the gap to just a point by half-time.
New Zealand lost two players to the bin during the match, including hooker Codie Taylor in the second half, but kept their nose in front thanks to Will Jordan’s breakaway try. A penalty try brought Ireland back in it, and then they piled on the pressure in an attempt to complete the comeback.
Trailing by four points, they threw all they had at the All Blacks in the last few minutes, including a 37-phase possession with the clock in the red, hunting for a try. In the end, they were left with that all too familiar quarter-final exit.
Bundee Aki cemented his place as the best inside centre in the world with an outstanding tournament that brought five tries and countless highlight-reel runs.
Caelan Doris furthered his claim as the best No.8 not named Ardie Savea, while Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose were all rewarded for excellent seasons by being named in World Rugby’s team of the year.
There is a massive hole to fill at fly-half now that Sexton has retired, but he is not the only Ireland veteran calling it a day.
Winger Keith Earls confirmed the World Cup was his last hurrah after Ireland lost to New Zealand, while flanker Peter O’Mahony has admitted his future is undecided.
Prop Cian Healy has ruled out retirement, even though he missed the World Cup due to injury, but the likes of Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Rob Herring and Bundee Aki are 33 or over and face uncertain futures. Farrell may elect to keep some or all of them in camp for the foreseeable but the next World Cup may well be too far away.
The big decision will surround who takes the No.10 jersey and Farrell is not short of options.
Ross Byrne has been Sexton’s understudy for the past couple of seasons and at 28, and with 22 caps to his name, he has plenty of the Test match experience required for the white heat of Guinness Six Nations rugby.
Then there’s Jack Crowley, the 23-year-old Munster fly-half who appeared to usurp Byrne as the back-up 10 during the World Cup and is surely the favourite to start the 2024 Championship.
Other options include Joey Carbery, still just 27 but finally injury free and enjoying a strong start to the United Rugby Championship campaign, and perhaps even Sam Prendergast. Just 20, the Leinster playmaker starred during the Under-20s Six Nations and has a bright future ahead of him, even if the 2024 Championship comes too soon.
Elsewhere, expect to see more of exciting back-row Cian Prendergast, who made his first Test start against England in a Summer Nations Series clash in August, while lock Joe McCarthy could force himself into the first XV.
Guinness Six Nations prospects
Though Sexton is gone and others may follow, this next World Cup cycle will be about revolution rather than evolution for Andy Farrell and his team.
They still boast a world-class squad with a hard-nosed winning mentality and in the pressure cooker of a Guinness Six Nations, that is a valuable characteristic to have.
The Championship’s opening game could hardly be tougher, however. A trip to a raucous Marseille on a Friday night to face France is likely to be the toughest match of the Championship and pits two teams licking their wounds following disappointing World Cups against each other.
Back-to-back home games against a rebuilding Italy and Wales then follows, and Ireland will be confident of winning both – especially as they have never lost at home to the Azzurri, and have beaten Wales in six of their last seven meetings.
After the second fallow week, spring brings two absorbing matches to finish. England away is always a tough encounter, and Ireland will be hoping to repeat their 2022 success at Twickenham, before they finish at home to Scotland on St Patrick’s Weekend, in a re-match of their World Cup group match.
The first Championship after a World Cup is always tough to read, but Ireland will be among the favourites again.
2024 Guinness Six Nations Fixtures
February 2: France v Ireland, Orange Velodrome, Kick-off 8pm
February 11: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off 3pm
February 24: Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off 2.15pm
March 9: England v Ireland, Twickenham, Kick-off 4.45pm
March 16: Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium, Kick-off 4.45pm