As we pause for the Christmas break, we take a look back at some of the highs and lows of 2023, a year which began with the Ireland Men being crowned Grand Slam champions, and ended with a gut-wrenching Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit.
Andy Farrell’s fourth year in charge saw Ireland build on the momentum of their first ever Test series win in New Zealand. Continuing their unbeaten run through November, the coaching group selected a strong squad for the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
Leinster’s Jamie Osborne was the only uncapped player included, rewarded for his provincial form and his appearances for Emerging Ireland and Ireland ‘A’ in the previous months.
Although Osborne did not get on the pitch, it was the squad’s strength in depth that was a cornerstone of the Grand Slam success. It helped them cope with late alterations to starting XVs, and the injury setbacks that befell them during the Scotland game in particular.
32 players saw game-time for Ireland during the 2023 Championship. The back-three of Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen and James Lowe, Andrew Porter and James Ryan in the tight five, and back rowers Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, were all ever-present as starters.
Farrell’s men set the tone during the opening rounds, winning their first Six Nations match in Cardiff since 2013 and following up to beat France for the first time since 2019, on a day that Porter, Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne all won their 50th international caps.
That blistering 32-19 bonus point win over les Bleus was arguably the match of the tournament. It saw the world’s top two ranked teams go head-to-head for the first time in Six Nations history, and the outcome set a new Irish record of 13 consecutive home victories.
With back-to-back starts, Stuart McCloskey was increasing his influence in midfield, while Finlay Bealham, grasping his opportunity in the injury-enforced absence of Tadhg Furlong, stepped up impressively for his first two Six Nations starts.
Bealham was memorably involved in unleashing Keenan for the opening try against France, a score which earned a World Rugby Try of the Year nomination, and his Connacht colleague, Mack Hansen, starred in the next two rounds.
Hansen bagged a brace of tries and was the player-of-the-match as Ireland won 34-20 away to Italy, a game which ended with Jack Crowley and Jimmy O’Brien both on the field as they made their Six Nations debuts.
Displaying his finishing skills and playmaking ability, Hansen crossed again and set up Jack Conan’s decisive try when the men in green battled through adversity to prevail 22-7 at Murrayfield Stadium.
Head coach Farrell called it ‘organised chaos’ at half-time as injuries impacted his troops, especially in the pack where there was the novel sight of van der Flier throwing in to the lineouts and Cian Healy packing down at hooker for a series of scrums.
Garry Ringrose’s 50th cap was cruelly cut short due to a head injury, but his team-mates rallied and in Farrell’s words, put in ‘a special performance for Garry’. “For someone like him, he deserves something like that to look back on,” he said afterwards.
The fit-again Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park returned to the side for the Grand Slam decider against England at the Aviva Stadium. Ryan Baird joined James Ryan in the team’s third second row pairing of the tournament.
Crucially, Porter, Furlong and Dan Sheehan formed the starting front row again, just six days on from that attritional clash with the Scots. Explosive hooker Sheehan went on to produce a player-of-the-match performance, registering a try in each half.
Having played the full 80 minutes in Edinburgh, the ever-durable Porter showed his importance to the team again by only being replaced with five minutes to go. Moments later, Rob Herring reached over to seal the result – just as he had done in Wellington against the All Blacks.
Herring was Ireland’s 13th different try scorer of the 2023 Six Nations. Leading the way were wingers Hansen and James Lowe with three each, and Keenan, Ryan and Sheehan all crossed the whitewash twice. Hansen and Keenan were nominated for the Six Nations Player of the Championship award, along with Doris.
The 29-16 bonus point triumph over England, on St. Patrick’s weekend and on the occasion of van der Flier’s 50th cap, sparked jubilant scenes as the Ireland Men’s team won their fourth Grand Slam, their first one at home since 1948, and clinched their first Championship at home since 1985.
Further history was made as talismanic captain Jonathan Sexton, in the midst of his final year in the professional ranks, kicked nine points to move above Ronan O’Gara as the Six Nations’ all-time leading points scorer (566 points).
It was a weekend to remember for Irish Rugby as Richie Murphy’s Under-20s also made it five wins out of five, meaning Ireland became the first nation to win senior and U-20 Grand Slams in the same Six Nations campaign.
Summing up what it meant to captain Ireland to the Grand Slam in his final Six Nations appearance, Sexton said: “Growing up, all you wanted to do was play for Ireland, and for me, I don’t know why, but I always wanted to captain Ireland.
“Andy asked me to it, and it was probably the best day of my life, and to have this today, it’s even better.
“A great management team, a great bunch of players. I’ve said in the dressing room there – it’s not the end, there’s plenty left in this team.”
A huge element of Ireland’s success in the spring was their defence, with only six tries conceded across the five rounds. Scotland came closest to that tally with 12. Keeping up those high standards was going to be vital heading into the World Cup.
A smartly-tailored pre-season programme had Farrell’s charges in fine fettle as August’s Bank of Ireland Nations Series loomed. Osborne, Tom Stewart, Ciaran Frawley, and Calvin Nash were part of the 42-man training squad, and the latter three got capped at home to Italy.
The Azzurri, England and Samoa were all beaten in warm-up contests, with the Pacific Islanders posing the toughest test in a wet Bayonne where Ireland came good in the second half to edge them 17-13.
The buoyant mood in camp, raised significantly the previous Saturday by Keith Earls’ diving try finish against England to mark his 100th Test for Ireland, dipped when Healy, admittedly ‘broken but not beaten’, suffered a calf injury that kept him out of the Rugby World Cup squad.
Less than 24 hours after the Samoa match, Ireland’s 33-man World Cup selection was revealed with Sexton, Conor Murray and Earls bound for their fourth World Cup, and a total of 18 tournament debutants included in the touring party.
From that eight-week pre-season period, which included a lot of hard sessions at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown and also warm-weather training in Portugal’s Quinta do Lago, it was on to Tours, Ireland’s base for the World Cup’s pool stages.
Boosted by a ‘fantastic welcome’ from 12,000 locals at an open session, the squad’s rewarding stint in the Centre-Val de Loire region helped them to hit the ground running in Pool B, as comprehensive winners over both Romania (82-8) and Tonga (59-16).
Racking up 12 tries against the Oaks in the Bordeaux heat, it was Ireland’s largest ever World Cup win, both in terms of points scored and the winning margin. Skipper Sexton finished with a handsome 24-point haul, including two tries.
The 38-year-old Dubliner claimed another much-prized record in the Tonga game. He became Ireland’s all-time record points scorer when slicing in under the posts just before half-time. He added 11 points with the boot to take his career total to 1090 points.
The player-of-the-match in Nantes, Bundee Aki was at his brilliant best during Ireland’s pool run. He scored four tries across the opening two rounds, and his lung-busting break was a highlight of the rousing 13-8 defeat of eventual champions South Africa.
With the battle for top spot in Pool B intensifying, one of the great World Cup tussles of recent times played out at the Stade de France where Ireland’s defensive might, coupled with a 77th-minute penalty from replacement Crowley, saw them come out on top.
It was a fine way to mark Aki’s 50th appearance for Ireland, rounded off by a spine-tingling post-match rendition of the Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’, a song that had grown legs and taken off as a celebratory anthem behind Ireland’s bid for World Cup glory.
Beating the Springboks ensured the world’s number one ranked team had their destiny in their own hands as they looked to overcome a dangerous Scottish outfit and advance as pool winners.
Returning to the Saint-Denis cauldron, Farrell’s side put together a sizzling six-try display to beat the Scots 36-14. Gibson-Park made everything tick as player-of-the-match, and Peter O’Mahony was given a rapturous reception as he became the 10th member of Irish Rugby’s 100-cap club.
All roads led to Paris again on the night of October 14 as thousands of Ireland fans – bringing incredible colour, noise and passion to the occasion – painted the city green in anticipation of a seismic rematch between Ireland and New Zealand, the Pool A runners-up.
Fast starts were the springboard to success during the 2022 tour, but this time the All Blacks seized the lead and never relinquished it. They led 13-0 midway through the first half, but converted tries from Aki, a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee, and Gibson-Park left just a point in it at the break.
Frustratingly for Ireland, who were unchanged from the Scotland match with Ryan missing out with a hand injury, they were unable to score again before Aaron Smith returned from the sin bin.
A slick Will Jordan try, allied to a Jordie Barrett penalty during the final quarter, proved enough for the Kiwis to progress as 28-24 winners. Ireland were left to rue their errors made in such a high-stakes fixture, particularly at set-piece time and the breakdown.
It was three tries apiece in the end, as the Irish maul forced a penalty try. Codie Taylor also saw yellow at that stage with just a point between the teams again, but replacement Ronan Kelleher was held up, and a barrage of late Irish phases – 37 in all – ended with Sam Whitelock earning a penalty at the breakdown.
It was quarter-final heartbreak again for Ireland, this one stinging the most as they twice closed the gap on Ian Foster’s team and Kelleher was only inches away from moving them in front with eight minutes remaining.
Having fallen short of their ultimate goal, it was a desperately sad way for Sexton to bring down the curtain on his career. In his own words, ‘we lost, but we won’, a feeling many of the supporters could identify with when the dust settled on this latest World Cup exit.
Those supercharged autumn Saturday nights gave us some incredible experiences, the full gamut of emotions whether in the stadium or at home or abroad. The fact that three pool winners bowed out on quarter-final weekend shows how little there is between the world’s leading teams.
Sexton wanted Ireland’s class of 2023 to ‘inspire the nation’, and that they did through a record run of 17 wins and a captivating World Cup crusade. A bright immediate future lies ahead, particularly with Farrell remaining at the helm and more young players pushing through.
Apart from Sexton and Earls’ retirement post-World Cup, the playing group remains largely intact. Excitement is already building for confirmation of Ireland’s new captain, their Six Nations title defence, the emergence of Sexton’s likely successor at out-half, and the summer tour to South Africa.
Mick Kearney has stepped down as team manager, and Mike Catt is leaving the Ireland set-up at the end of the current season. Leinster’s Andrew Goodman will replace Catt as the national team’s backs coach following the summer tour.
2023 wrapped up with Farrell winning the coveted World Rugby Coach of the Year award, and the announcement of his new long-term IRFU contract to remain as Ireland head coach until the end of the 2027 Rugby World Cup.
Looking forward to 2024 and beyond, the Wigan man said: “It is a pleasure to work with such a talented and committed group of players and as we enter a new cycle, it will be exciting to see more players come through the system.
“There is a talented group of established internationals who are determined to succeed at international level for Ireland, and I am excited to see how the recent Ireland Under-20 squads will also emerge and challenge for international honours in the near future.
“It all makes for an exciting next chapter and it is one which my family and I are delighted to continue.”