As 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam champions, Ireland’s path to the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year now has solid foundations.
With five outstanding performances against the northern hemisphere teams over the last two months, the players will be riding high heading into the rest of the year’s fixtures as the world’s second-best ranked team.
Yet the Irish have never reached the semi-final stage of a Rugby World Cup, despite establishing themselves as a world-class team over the past two decades.
With just under a year and a half until the 2019 World Cup in Japan where all the best international rugby shirts will be on show, Ireland must focus on three aspects to ensure the best performance and live up to their potential.
In order to progress, the first element that Ireland must concentrate on is developing the youth in the squad so that they have enough experience to blossom come September 2019.
With a record seven tries during the Six Nations, Jacob Stockdale was the outstanding performer and won Player of the Tournament for his efforts.
At only 22, the Ulster winger will be crucial for Irish success and must be kept fit, but the speedster cannot afford to be pushed too hard in the months leading up to the World Cup.
Another exciting prospect is Leinster’s up-and-coming full-back Jordan Larmour, who made his international debut against Italy and came on against England in Ireland’s Grand-Slam deciding game.
Less than two months after signing his first professional contract, the youngster came off the bench and stood up to the test, sparking what could be a serious challenge on Rob Kearney’s jersey over the next year.
Joey Carbery, 22, and James Ryan, 21, also made their international debuts during the tournament and will be key to the transition period, particularly with Ireland’s notoriety of losing big-name players to injury.
The road to Japan
Ireland may have put in the hard graft for the Grand Slam this year, but how the players perform over the next year will be paramount to their World Cup campaign.
Ireland’s summer tour of Australia will be significant in providing foresight into how they will perform against one of the strongest southern hemisphere teams in the world.
The test series will be crucial in revealing signs of weakness, but Joe Schmidt must learn from the experience – whether good or bad – and use it as a building block for the World Cup.
The Irish then have the defence of their Grand Slam title to consider, with an opening fixture against a hurting English side that will be fired up for revenge.
Learning from the past
The Irish have historically succumbed to the occasion at World Cups, especially in 2015, where they crashed out to Argentina after topping their pool.
Having never made it past the quarter-final stage, the team must not let the failures of the past influence their mental preparation.
Instead, the players and coaches must use the frustration of the previous tournaments to fuel a hunger for more next year, shaping a sense of ‘it’s our time’ to spur the green jerseys on.
The signs of greatness are there for the Irish, but the work has only just begun and the next 17 months must be used wisely to prepare for World Cup glory.