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Possibilities of post-Sexton era on show as World Cup hangover lifts

As is customary at the end of a four-year World Cup cycle, the level of change is more acute than at any point over the previous three seasons

Watching the last two weekends of the Rugby World Cup unfold didn’t exactly ease the post-Irish hangover or dilute the feeling of what might have been. If anything, the final will reinforce the belief in France and Ireland that they never had a better chance of winning a first World Cup.

Regrets and flashbacks would have been commonplace. Sleep patterns were affected, and that wasn’t just the players and coaches. Granted, this would have applied to the All Blacks’ players, coaches and supporters too, after suffering the agony of a one-point defeat in the final as, once again, we were reminded that while some of the Tier Two teams were entitled to feel content with what they achieved, in reality only one squad and one country are ever entirely satisfied.

But at least none of the All Blacks and Springboks players will have to lace up a pair of boots in anger again for months. In sharp contrast, seeing pictures of Finn Russell training with his new Bath team-mates the Monday after Scotland’s pool exit, one almost felt sorry for him.

For some Leinster players, seemingly, next week’s URC game against the Dragons in Rodney Parade will mark their first game since the World Cup. But even four weeks after the heartbreaking quarter-final defeat by the All Blacks and having devoted themselves to the sole cause of winning the World Cup for five months, it’s still a huge ask.


The players need a complete break, as much psychologically as they do physically and in some respects, we need a break from them too.

Both in terms of what comes before and after a World Cup, the plusses are loaded in favour of the southern hemisphere teams. The feeling remains that for France and Ireland, it would have benefited them had the World Cup followed in the slip stream of the Six Nations instead of being a continuation of the season for South Africa and New Zealand.

Instead, hangovers have to be nursed and can linger amid such an anticlimactic fallout. Rewind to the 2015-16 season, when Leinster in particular suffered and their only European win was fuelled by a spate of debutants. Connacht almost single-handedly saved that Irish season.

As is customary at the end of a four-year World Cup cycle, the level of change is more acute than at any point over the previous three seasons.

Nowhere is this more in evidence, of course, than at outhalf given the retirement of Johnny Sexton after his reign at ‘10′ since the retirement of Ronan O’Gara.

So many careers are about timing and at 20 years of age, Sam Prendergast doesn’t appear to have picked a bad time to emerge on the scene.

There are understandably high hopes for the talented, Under-20 Grand Slam-winning, World Cup finalist, but he’s not the only young outhalf who started out this season with their expectations enhanced in the post-Sexton era.

At 23, the same is obviously true of the gifted Jack Crowley, who must have benefited significantly from working alongside the grandmaster. But it doesn’t stop there. With Ian Madigan having retired, opportunity is already knocking more often for Jake Flannery, the 24-year-old from Tipperary, who made an assured second start and just fourth overall since relocating to Ulster to escape the logjam in Munster against Connacht at the Sportsground on Saturday night.

Admittedly, he missed a crunch 57th-minute penalty which would have extended Ulster’s lead to 23-17 (such are the vagaries of a placekicker’s life in the Sportsground) but his performance was also a timely reminder of the qualities this classy player brought to bear as part of the Irish Under-20s Grand Slam in 2019.

Tony Butler, the 21-year-old who followed Flannery into the Munster academy, made a superb full debut for the province in their 45-14 win over the Dragons, while it’s worth reminding ourselves that Harry Byrne, who made his 33rd start for Leinster in their win over Edinburgh, is still only 24.

All told, there are ten outhalves in the provincial senior squads, as well as the versatile Ciarán Frawley and aforementioned Butler, and of them seven have already played for Ireland, namely Ross and Harry Byrne, Frawley, Joey Carbery, Crowley, Billy Burns and Jack Carty, not to mention Mike Lowry and JJ Hanrahan.

Certainly, Ross Byrne will believe his time is now and at 31 one of Carty’s ambitions is to play in the next World Cup. Some of his performance last Saturday against Ulster, not least the missed penalty to draw the sides level, will fuel the doubters, but the way he arrowed his ensuing penalty into the corner and then executed the kick-pass for Diarmuid Kilgallen demonstrated his innate footballing ability.

Meanwhile, although injured again, at 28, Carbery still has time on his side too – another decade if he can emulate Sexton! In any event, the field is wide open.

The stock of locks has never looked so deep either, when you consider the performances and talent of the Munster duo Tom Ahern (23) and Edwin Edogbo (20), not to mention Harry Sheridan (22) and Cormac Izuchukwu (22) at Ulster. Who will Graham Rowntree pick when his World Cup winning secondrows (RG Snyman’s fitness permitting) and Tadhg Beirne are also in the mix?

Seven Academy players lined out for Munster in Saturday’s win (including serious talents in Brian Gleeson and Ben O’Connor), and 10 have now done so in three games, while the all-round displays of Connacht’s Cathal Forde and Leinster’s Jamie Osborne underline the midfield talent coming through. It’s also great to see Tommy O’Brien looking as sharp as ever for Leinster.

What’s more, in contrast to, say, the 2015-16 season, the province’s supporters have long since bought into the concept of the URC being the breeding ground for the provincial, post-World Cup rebuild, cheering them on in good numbers to eight home wins out of eight so far this season. The extended four-and-a-half month, World Cup-related hiatus since last season’s URC final has probably also heightened interest. A near full house of 7,500 witnessed Connacht’s comeback from 20-3 down to beat Ulster in an entertaining interprovincial derby.

There can’t be a complete cure for the post-World Cup hangover, but maybe the healing process is already under way.