“It is the end of an era, there’s no other way of putting it. There are a group of senior players who are moving on.”
There was an understandably sombre air about the post-match interviews many of the Ireland team fronted up for at Stade de France, at the weekend.
The clock had just passed midnight and we were into Sunday morning, local time, when the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Jack Conan and Dan Sheehan emerged to the ‘mixed zone’ for press duties. We all knew, by then, that Keith Earls would be joining Johnny Sexton in retiring from Test rugby.
O’Mahony, who turned 34 in September, acknowledged, “We’ll see. It is a tough one to take just now and a lot of my friends won’t be back. I have a contract until the end of the year and we will see where we go after that.”
17 of the 33-man Ireland squad were aged 30 or older, with 36-year-old Cian Healy cruelly ruled out with a leg injury just before the tournament. Barring a handful from that number, most of that contingent won’t be in Australia for the 2027 World Cup.
Andy Farrell will not be changing things too rapidly, though. Ireland still have a strong squad and the next couple of years, leading into the Lions tour, which he may well end up coaching, will be a slow transition. Come 2025, the World Cup focus will be narrowed.
Still, there are plenty of young players pressing for a decent look already, with spots in the squad opening up all around us. We have taken a look and compiled our Ireland XV for their next international, in February 2024.
Picking an Ireland team for France
“It is the end for this team,” reflected Andy Farrell, on Saturday, “because people are going to be leaving but the competition that this team has built over the years will continue because of how it has been driven, certainly over the last couple of years.
“The talent that we’ve got in Ireland will continue to come through and will continue to challenge, I’ve no doubt about that.”
Right now, the only thing certain is that Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls have headed into the rugby sunset. Peter O’Mahony looked in the best shape we had seen him in years during the past 18 months. We would not be surprised if Farrell was leaning on the likes of him and Cian Healy to help with the transition for the next block of players coming in.
Here are the other players that will be 36, or older, come the 2027 World Cup (and their current age):
- Rob Herring (33)
- Finlay Bealham (32)
- Dave Kilcoyne (34)
- Conor Murray (34)
- Bundee Aki (33)
There are five more players – Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Stuart McCloskey and James Lowe – that are 31. Conan himself admitted he is unsure if he will make it to that 2027 World Cup. He will not be the only one harbouring such thoughts.
Ireland’s first game of the 2024 Six Nations is a Friday night encounter with France, who also suffered quarter final heartbreak, at Stade Velodrome in Marseille. We have assessed the lay of the land and are making only three changes to the starting XV from that last eight loss to New Zealand.
Jack Crowley may not have got a sniff against the All Blacks but he seems to be the outhalf Andy Farrell trusts most, from the current crop. It remains to be seen if Joey Carbery can ever play his way back into the picture, while Sam Prendergast and Harry Byrne will both be looking at making early impressions, with Leinster, in the 2023/24 season.
Our big call is in the back row, and the only thing that gives us pause is the fact that Farrell went Joe McCarthy over Ryan Baird, on the bench, for the quarter final. Peter O’Mahony is crucial to the Irish lineout – he stayed on, at the weekend, while Josh van der Flier was called ashore – but it is time to look at someone else at blindside for a few games. We would not put it past O’Mahony still having a big role to play in this Irish set-up but, for now, indulge us. Ryan Baird is in, and he may need to get working on his CMJs.
The only other starting XV change sees James Ryan come back in for Iain Henderson – excellent against Scotland but one of a few that found it tougher against the All Blacks. Joe McCarthy and Jack Conan are on the bench – although Cian Prendergast is pressing for inclusion – while we are hanging onto Conor Murray for another run. If Craig Casey manages to get by him, he will have earned it.
We have Cian Healy on the bench, but someone like Josh Wycherley or Michael Milne could push on, this season, and press the veteran loosehead for a shot. Milne was called into the Ireland squad, for training purposes, back in February.
OUR IRELAND TEAM (vs. FRANCE)
15. Hugo Keenan
14. Mack Hansen
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Bundee Aki
11. James Lowe
10. Jack Crowley
9. Jamison Gibson-Park
1. Andrew Porter
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. James Ryan
6. Ryan Baird
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris
Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Joe McCarthy, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.
In terms of other players we will be expecting to be involved, it would be great to see Robert Baloucoune using the hurt of his recent exile to kick on. James Hume, too. We’ve mentioned Cian Prendergast already – he looks a Test player already.
Calvin Nash had an outstanding 2022/23 and should be back in the mix. If Antoine Frisch has another good season at Munster, Andy Farrell should get him in for a look under the hood.
In terms of younger guns, it is interesting to see Leinster giving Scott Penny a taste of captaincy in pre-season. He is a pocket rocket but has potential to be a Sam Underhill type option in a back row. Munster’s Brian Gleeson may be fast-tracked as he looks a real talent. Mentions, too, for Patrick Campbell, Edwin Edogbo, Nathan Doak and Jamie Osborne.
MIKE ROSS & JOHNE MURPHY ON HOUSE OF RUGBY
- Johnny Sexton fumes at All Blacks centre Rieko Ioane in post-match exchange
- “You cannot do that” – Matt Williams on roughest reason Ireland lost to the All Blacks
- Well-intentioned press conference question draws emotional Johnny Sexton response
- Rob Kearney in stitches as Peter O’Mahony delivers emphatic post-match interview