Ireland looking to bounce back from World Cup heartbreak
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Looking back on 2023 will be a bittersweet pill to swallow for Ireland fans. A year that began with so much hope of not only breaking their World Cup curse but going on to lift the famous Webb Ellis trophy itself ended in heartbreaking fashion.
Their titanic quarter-final clash with three-time champions New Zealand was an instant classic but unfortunately for the men in green they were on the wrong side of a 28-24 scoreline that ensured their wait for World Cup glory was extended for at least another four years.
The defeat makes it eight losses from eight quarter-final appearances for the men in green and while picking his side up from such a crushing blow will be a tough task for Andy Farrell, the Englishman will still be immensely proud of what he’s managed to cultivate over on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland became the number one team in the world with the 48-year-old head coach putting together a squad that rivals the best of this or any other generation. His side might have fallen short of their ultimate goal in 2023, but there is still an abundance of talent coming through the ranks and the 2024 Guinness Six Nations provides the perfect stage to start building the platform from which to launch their bid for World Cup glory in Australia.
Ireland come into this year’s tournament with a few bruises but they’re still the favourites alongside the hosts of last year’s World Cup, Fabien Galthie’s France. Peter O’Mahony once again picks up the reins as his country’s captain leading a team that has serious ambitions of claiming back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time in their history.
Top bookies have Ireland as 7/4 favourites and if they are to live to that billing the top priority will be filling the shoes of their legendary talisman Johnny Sexton at fly-half. The 38-year-old retired from international duty following Ireland’s exit from the World Cup as one of the greatest rugby players the country has ever produced. His tally of 1,101 test match points is the best by any Irishman and fourth on the all-time list. He also holds the record for the most points in the Six Nations with 566, just nine more than his predecessor Ronan O’Gara in second.
The Munsterman is worthy of mention to show the immense weight on Sexton’s shoulders when he first made his international debut back in 2009. Few would have imagined he’d live up to the same billing as one of the greatest players of a generation, let alone supersede him. Sexton was integral to Ireland’s success and style of play for 15 years and now, after well over two decades of rugby icons filling Ireland’s number 10 shirt, the burden falls upon the likes of Harry Byrne, Jack Crowley and Ciaran Frawley to make their mark.
Elsewhere, the squad is littered with exciting new prospects. While there is still a wealth of experience in Farrell’s side, he is setting his stool out early with his selection and breeding a new generation of Irishman to step into the fold over the course of this new World Cup cycle. While the Irish public will have their eyes firmly on the middle of the park to see who steps forward in Sexton’s absence, there should be just as much intrigue in the battle for a starting spot in the number 9 shirt. Jamison Gibson-Park has made scrum-half his own as Conor Murray entered the twilight years of his career but 24-year-old Craig Casey is waiting in the wings ready to make an impact.
As for the forwards, the one to watch will be 22-year-old lock Joe McCarthy. A stellar showing in the quarter-final against the All Blacks put him on the map and he has since maintained that form for his club Leinster. Also worthy of mention, despite not making the 34-man squad for this year’s championship, Edwin Edogbo is an emerging talent who Ireland fans should pay close attention to over the coming years. If it weren’t for an untimely achilles injury he would’ve likely made the cut, and while a sad turn of events for the 21-year-old, his, and others’, immense form paired with some fresh faces gives hope to many that Ireland’s golden era is not over just yet.
O’Mahony’s side start their campaign with the toughest test of all, a trip to the Stade De France to face the fearless French. The Irish rarely enjoy success when visiting Paris having only recorded three victories since the turn of the century; before that you have to go back to 1972 for their last win in the French capital. It goes without saying that winning the opening contest is pivotal in any side’s bid to claim the championship but this fixture feels particularly significant.
If Farrell can find a way to conquer Paris then the route to the Six Nations title becomes a lot clearer. France are undoubtedly Ireland’s closest competition and while the likes of England and Scotland are set to provide a sterner test than in recent years, should Ireland succeed on February 2nd they will be in excellent shape to exorcize their World Cup demons and achieve their goal of back-to-back Grand Slams.