The 10 brightest prospects in Irish rugby 2 months ago

The 10 brightest prospects in Irish rugby

This crop of lads will provide many of the players that feature in the next World Cup(s).

Ireland went into the 2023 World Cup with a vastly experienced squad. The average age of the Irish rugby squad was 29.4 years-old with only two teams, South Africa and Samoa, boasting greater maturity.

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It was all going so well, starting from March 2022 and going all the way up to the World Cup quarter final, until New Zealand burst Ireland's bubble. Within an hour of the final whistle being sounded, Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls had retired from all forms of rugby.

There had been initial fears that other senior players, such as Cian Healy, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne and Peter O'Mahony, may follow those legends out the 'Exit' door but Andy Farrell should be able to call on them, in 2024. After the quarter final defeat, O'Mahony said of his own Test future:

"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."

Truth be told, O'Mahony has looked in his best Test form over the past two years than he did at any juncture of his 20s. He is one of the favourites to captain Ireland in the 2024 Six Nations but would be 38 by the time the next World Cup, in Australia, comes around.

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Looking at that World Cup squad, which saw 28-year-old Jeremy Loughman come in as a late injury replacement for 36-year-old Cian Healy, there were only three players aged under 25 by the time that New Zealand game rolled around.

While there will be an adjustment period for Farrell as he filters in new players to his squad, a study across the provinces - and from watching URC, European and Ireland U20 games over the past few years - shows the senior squad should be loaded in 2024, and beyond.

We have compiled a list of the top 40 prospects in Irish rugby (aged under 25) and, from that, settled on a Top 10 that would be the envy of most Test nations.

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Irish rugby Irish rugby players, from left, Robert Baloucoune, Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne. (Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile)

40 brightest prospects in Irish rugby

When compiling the Top 10, from the long-list of 40 promising players aged under 25, it was hard to veer too far from lads that already have Test experience. Seven of our Top 10 have already played for Andy Farrell's Ireland, with the other three already called in to train with the senior squad.

Ryan Baird has been one of the top Irish prospects for a few years now. He has 15 Test caps and was a key figure in the 2023 Six Nations run-in that ended with a Grand Slam win. This is a massive season for Baird when it comes to Leinster and Ireland. He will know himself that it is time to push on and become a regular starter in big games. If he can become a go-to lineout option, that could be enough to clinch a blindside role with Ireland.

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Next up is a player that actually pipped Baird to the bench role for that World Cup loss to New Zealand. Joe McCarthy was fast-tracked into the Test squad and is learning his trade in some big fixtures. He looks to have taken a lot from the World Cup experience and is back monstering lads in the URC.

With no small task of stepping into the 10 jersey left on the hook by Johnny Sexton, Munster outhalf Jack Crowley will get there, in time. If he even comes close to achieving what Sexton did for Ireland, the next 10 years should be worth following closely. (Uncapped players, below, in italics)

Top 10 brightest Irish rugby prospects

  1. Ryan Baird (24)
  2. Joe McCarthy (22)
  3. Jack Crowley (23)
  4. Craig Casey (24)
  5. Jamie Osborne (22)
  6. Cian Prendergast (23)
  7. Tom Stewart (22)
  8. Scott Penny (23)
  9. Thomas Ahern (23)
  10. Harry Byrne (24)

Harry Byrne (edging out John Hodnett) is also in the Top 10 while Sam Prendergast was not far off. Farrell has some good options for the 10 jersey but the challenge for whoever gets it will be steep. In the space of five weeks, Ireland's starting 10 will have to lead his side out against France, in Marseille, and England, in Twickenham, with home ties against Italy and Wales wedged in between.

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Irish rugby Alex Kendellen of Munster and Leinster's Joe McCarthy are two of the brightest prospects in Irish rugby. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Best of the rest

The six players next in line, after that Top 10, are Leinster outhalf Sam Prendergast (19), Ulster half-back Nathan Doak (21), Munster back-rows John Hodnett (24), Brian Gleeson (19) and Alex Kendellen (22), and Connacht winger Diarmuid Kilgallen (23).

Honourable mentions

Further emphasising the talent coming through, across the provinces, we have:

MUNSTER: Josh Wycherley (24), Scott Buckley (23), Paddy Campbell (21), Ben O'Connor (19), Edwin Edogbo (20), Ruadhán Quinn (20)

LEINSTER: Liam Turner (24), Rob Russell (24), Lee Barron (22), John McKee (23), Paddy McCarthy (20), James Culhane (21), Fintan Gunne (20), Charlie Tector (21)

ULSTER: Scott Wilson (21), Aaron Sexton (23), Stewart Moore (24), Harry Sheridan (22), Reuben Crothers (21), David McCann (22), Ethan McIlroy (23)

CONNACHT: Cathal Forde (22), Niall Murray (24), Dylan Tierney-Martin (24), Shane Jennings (22)

*If we have missed a top prospect on your list, feel free to holler at us on social media

JAMES DOWNEY & LINDSAY PEAT ON HOUSE OF RUGBY

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