We are roughly three weeks removed from the conclusion of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, as fast as it came and went, just as briskly the hopes and dreams of the Irish rugby players and fans alike faded. So what now?
With the departure of squad staples like all-time points scorer Johnny Sexton and centurion Keith Earls, changes in the main coaching ticket, and an open vacancy at captain, the future of Ireland’s international rugby success finds itself in a state of uncomfortable uncertainty.
Oh, wouldn’t it all have been so simple if Jordie Barrett hadn’t held Ronan Kelleher up over the line, or had Josh van der Flier managed to wrap Richie Mo’unga up in midfield? Fine margins. Alas, here we are, approaching another leap-year Six Nations Championship without the confidence of a Webb Ellis Cup.
The upcoming campaign brings forward an awkward ultimatum for Andy Farrell and his coaching staff, to stick or to twist, to play their hand or to revert back to the deck. There is no shortage of incoming talent at the disposal of Farrell, but the question is whether it is the correct time for a change of guard.
There was a feeling of refreshing youthfulness surrounding the team which entered the latest World Cup run, however, that is not exactly the reality. With the squad having an average age of 29 years old, many of the seats on the plane to Australia come 2027 are sure to be occupied by new names and faces.
It is an inevitable changeover, but is now the right time?
History would suggest so. Some of Ireland’s greatest-ever internationals were given their first opportunity in the senior squad during the Six Nations Championship following an unsuccessful World Cup campaign. Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer are just two of the names who received their first international caps in a post-World Cup Six Nations.
As it would happen, there is another exciting half-back partnership brewing in Munster in Craig Casey and Jack Crowley. Albeit, both players have received several caps already, they are still fresh-faced, with vast potential yet to be realised.
Casey, who has understudied Conor Murray for years in Thomond Park, has timed his emergence as an elite scrum-half to perfection as both Murray and current starter Jamison Gibson-Park sit in the back-end of their international careers.
Labeled by Munster and Irish legend Alan Quinlan as ‘The best passer in the game’ on Off The Ball recently, Casey is the favourite to fill the soon-to-be empty Irish 9 jersey.
Speaking of job openings, with the exit of long-time fly-half starter Johnny Sexton, the most important position on the green remains wide open. Just a year ago, former UCD 10 Ross Byrne would have been the certain second option to Sexton for Ireland. A Six Nations and a World Cup later, that decision isn’t as straightforward as it once was.
Jack Crowley, just 23 years of age, snatched the role of second fiddle from the grasps of Byrne while in France, featuring in three of Ireland’s five fixtures, as Byrne managed just one appearance against Tonga. The Munster man looked the part too, scoring the decisive penalty vs South Africa, a moment many Irish fans will hold onto for years to come.
The back-line is not alone in its vulnerability to an imminent revamp, as the forwards pack leans more so on the experienced side. With Peter O’Mahony at 34 years old, Tadhg Furlong at 31, Tadhg Beirne also at 31, and Josh van der Flier at 30, it is not unlikely that Andy Farrell may begin to rotate his crop.
Andy Farrell will have a few months of United Rugby Championship action to help make his mind up as all four provinces have embarked on their silverware hunt. Thanks to the short hiatus granted to those who represented Ireland at the World Cup, many younger players have received the opportunity to put their best foot forward.
As for our UCD boys, their presence will likely persist in the Irish squad as youth compliments their reputation. Andrew Porter, Caelan Doris, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien and Hugo Keenan all being under 28, whatever Farrell’s squad shapes up to be, come February, Belfield will remain at the centre of it all.
Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor