As the rain fell from a gloomy Cardiff sky, a demoralised Irish team soaked up the disappointment from what had been a rather dismal Six Nations campaign.
Impressive flashes against Scotland and France were cancelled out by comprehensive defeats at the hands of England and Wales, and Joe Schmidt’s side are starting looking woefully unprepared for the World Cup later this year.
Nevertheless, let’s take a look at what we do and don’t know ahead of the Eastern campaign to come.
What we know: The front row is ready
If Ireland fans can take anything from this tournament, it’s that they can rely on their front three being ready for Japan. Cian Healy was the standout performer in the Irish XV over the last five games, and Tadhg Furlong can be expected to hang onto his spot at tight-head prop too. Captain Rory Best is a part of the furniture in this Ireland squad, but must know that his playing days are numbered at the age of 36.
What we know: Those young stars are still in place
Those young Irish stars who shone brightly a year ago aren’t going anywhere, with Jacob Stockdale, in particular, remaining one of the most exciting players to watch in world rugby. The enormous James Ryan will continue to be a physical presence in the rough and tumble of the breakdown, and Jordan Larmour made a strong case to be included in the starting lineup in Japan.
What we know: Rob Kearney and Keith Earls looked tired
Keith Earls ran in three tries during the tournament, but it’s unknown just how long he and Rob Kearney can keep Larmour out of the starting XV. Both are likely to play some kind of role in Asia, but the degree of involvement looks like it could be smaller than it has been in years past.
What we know: Sexton is still head and shoulders above the rest
Johnny Sexton had a tough game in Cardiff, but he was certainly not alone in that regard. He is, however, still the focal point of the Irish attack. With his laser-guided kicking, you’d be a fool to entirely write this team off come the World Cup.
What we know: Unforced errors must be obliterated
During the heavy defeat to Wales, Ireland made unforced error after unforced error. Handling problems, kicks flying into touch on the full and general ill-discipline meant Wales were always on top. Schmidt will have to iron that out of his team in his preparations for rugby’s biggest competition.
What we don't know: How much of an impact will Iain Henderson make?
The impressive second row was unlucky with injury for the a second consecutive Six Nations, this time missing the entire tournament. The 27-year-old will start in Japan if he’s fit, and Schmidt will be hoping he can bring some of his top level experience to the field when it matters most.
What we don't know: How will this side match up against the Southern hemisphere teams?
The historic 16-9 win against New Zealand in the Autumn internationals should still be fresh in the memories of these Irish players, but the All Blacks (along with South Africa and Australia) will have surely taken careful note of their shortcomings in the Six Nations. Can Ireland and Schmidt replicate that winning formula?
What we don't know: Can the team show enough mental toughness in the heat of battle?
When the temperature got turned up this year, Ireland melted. In their biggest games in the tournament – the first against England and the last against Wales – the crucible proved too great for a team that was supposedly experienced in fixtures of this magnitude. Can the senior leaders of the squad get their heads together to work out what went wrong on the turf?
What we don't know: Who starts at number eight?
CJ Stander? Jordi Murphy? Jack Conan? All three started games in the number eight shirt during the tournament, and Schmidt seems to be no closer to knowing who his first choice No. 8 would be. The impact of a comfortable, assured, utility man at the back of the scrum can be an all-important factor in deciding the fortunes of your team.
What we don't know: Will the players give their all for Schmidt?
Set to leave his post at the end of the World Cup, the question must be posed – will these players give all they’ve got for an outgoing coach? In the Six Nations, it seemed not. Here’s hoping that will be different come September.
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