Rugby World Cup proves that Ireland's Golden Age is set to continue
By: Cian Fahey | Published Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 7:15 PM | Updated Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 7:15 PM
Rory Best has been named in the Ireland starting lineup
to face Wales this weekend. There was some doubt that Best would be able to play, and while it would have been a blow if he hadn't, the reality is that Sean Cronin would have had a chance to prove that this golden age of rugby for Ireland won't be ending in New Zealand.
Ever since Brian O'Driscoll's hattrick in Paris 11 years ago, Irish rugby has enjoyed a huge amount of success.
Munster have arguably been the most consistent team in Europe, while Leinster have matched them for two titles apiece. That success at club level has translated into International glory.
While the last world cup remains more infamous than famous, the team has won multiple triple crowns and the much coveted grand slam in the Six Nations since then.
Most of those past glories were won relying on veteran players such as O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara and Donnacha O'Callaghan. However this world cup has seen a shift towards the younger, emerging players in the squad.
While Jonathan Sexton may have lost his place to Ronan O'Gara in the 10 shirt, it is Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris who are now leading the forwards. Paul O'Connell may remain the pack leader, but the biggest impacts are being made by his teammates.
The Irish squad as it currently is, has the perfect balance of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership. Guys like Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy and Tommy Bowe may still be young players in terms of age, but they have accrued a vast amount of experience in rugby terms.
The team still needs players such as O'Gara, O'Connell and O'Driscoll if they are to have any chance of winning this world cup, but the base for future success is definitely already there.
Right now the most important Irish players reside in the back row. A back row that is currently looking like the best group throughout world rugby. However the trio of players manning that group still have their best years ahead of them.
At 27 years of age, Jamie Heaslip is the elder-statesman, while Sean O'Brien looks like winning the player-of-the-tournament at only 24. Stephen Ferris has looked like a man amongst boys so far, but he remains only 26.
Each of these players will be either entering, or still in, their primes in four years time when the next world cup comes along. In the professional era, the backrow is a vital cog of any rugby team. The front row is similarly so.
Cian Healy has emerged into a fine rugby player and it is very difficult to comprehend that he is only 23 years of age. International props don't generally exist at that age, therefore Ireland are incredibly lucky to have such a talent already starting, and performing, in the front row.
Healy's teammates upfront may be on the back ends of their respective careers as Rory Best is 29 and Mike Ross is 31. However Sean Cronin is a quality hooker at 25 years of age, who should be the starter for Leinster this year. Mike Ross appears to have plenty left in the tank to provide the team enough time to find his replacement over the coming years.
Even if he doesn't, Tony Buckley (31) and Tom Court (30) can be stop-gaps.
Replacing the talented duo of Donnacha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell will be a problem but guys like Devin Toner, Kevin McLoughlin and Donnacha Ryan have all proven to be capable players at club level, who are just waiting for a chance to shine on the International stage.
McLoughlin and Toner didn't even make the current squad but that is more reflective of the talent ahead of them. Another player that didn't make the squad after a poor season was Luke Fitzgerald. However that should not discount the quality of his career that preceded him.
Fitzgerald, at only 24 years of age, already has 23 caps and one Lions test appearance. Fitzgerald has an outstanding rugby brain and despite playing most of his career on the wing thus far, could eventually be the longterm replacement for Brian O'Driscoll at outside center.
Replacing O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy is the only challenge to the Irish coaching staff for the backline. However, the pieces are already there with Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden and Andrew Trimble all viable options inside.
Connor Murray's combination of poise, physical ability and talent has drawn comparisons to Mike Philips of Wales, but more importantly already made him the team's starter at scrum-half. Murray is 22 years of age and if he continues his current level of play, he could dominate the position much like Peter Stringer did before him.
His long-term half-back partner figures to be Jonathan Sexton, who despite already starring in two heineken cup finals and starting for Ireland, is only 26 years of age. Sexton has struggled with his kicking game somewhat in New Zealand, but so have most kickers.
There is no doubt in my mind that long-term he will be a star for Ireland.
Someone who is already a star for Ireland is Tommy Bowe. Bowe is 27 years old and should he follow in the footsteps of the last speedster on Ireland's wing, Denis Hickie, then he can offer another six years or so of quality play.
Bowe may be the team's best winger, but he has plenty of young challengers who all have the potential to be world class players.
Not many people will remember just how promising Andrew Trimble (26) was when he first broke into the Irish setup. A combination of injuries and the impressive performances of those around him, cost Trimble his place in the starting lineup. However that does not mean that his skill or potential has diminished at all.
Trimble was very impressive in the buildup to the world cup and is unlucky to not be starting. He isn't starting because Keith Earls (24) has leapfrogged him. Earls is already a star for Munster, but his worth to Ireland will only grow when he gets a shot to start in the center in the future.
With Earls moving to the center in all likelihood, there will be a huge amount of shuffling between the rest of the Irish backs. A guy like Felix Jones (24) won't be forgotten with his seemingly endless talent, while Fergus McFadden (25) has been a brilliant player for Leinster only curtailed by his opportunities.
With Rob Kearney (25) providing a stable base at the back for possibly the next decade or so, Ireland have the base needed to extend this golden age of rugby.
A team that was once so happy just to compete as underdogs, should be looking to a bright future of possibly dominating the northern hemisphere.
There is no doubt that the talent is there, what the future holds will remain an unknown until it is discovered. However Ireland definitely have the best base to begin searching from.