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Rugby | Six Nations

Rory Best © Getty Images

Irish lay down early WC marker



Not for the first time, Ireland have raised expectations of an elusive World Cup breakthrough by delivering Six Nations success just as the tournament comes into view.

Triple crown, grand slam or championship victories have sent Ireland to the last three World Cups confident of losing the tag as the sole top eight world ranked side never to have progressed beyond the quarterfinals, only to come up short each time.

But after completing a clean sweep of their Six Nations opponents in dominant fashion on Saturday, coach Joe Schmidt can be forgiven for thinking things will be different in Japan in 18 months time.

Ireland are now comfortably ranked second in the world and possess a squad loaded with eye-catching depth, having blooded a number of youngsters over the last seven weeks who do not look the least bit overawed on the international stage.

They have also developed a habit of winning after racking up victory number 12 on the trot with the grand slam clinching 24-15 defeat of England at Twickenham.

"The way the younger players have come in, and not just fitted in, but wanting to keep getting better," Ireland captain Rory Best, the most senior member of the squad by more than three years at 35, told a news conference.

"As long as they keep that mentality and the guys who are a bit more experienced keep that 'I want to keep going forward' mentality, that's all you can ask."

YOUNG GUNS

Some of those younger players were among Ireland's standout performers. They unearthed a future captain-in-waiting in 21-year-old lock James Ryan, another world class backrow option in 23-year-old openside Dan Leavy while wing Jacob Stockdale broke the record for the most tries in a championship aged just 21.

Elsewhere the emergence of Andrew Porter, Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki - all Six Nations rookies - means Schmidt can plan a squad for Japan that will be one and two-men deep in a number of positions, notably at prop, second row, backrow and centre.

The lack of that kind of depth proved Ireland's undoing in the 2015 World Cup when they could not recover from losing five frontline starters during a punishing end to the pool stage.

Of Saturday's matchday 23, only six players will be over the age of 30 when the World Cup rolls around and the average age of Ireland's squad for all five games was a little over 26 years.

They remain hugely reliant on the pivotal halfback pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton but unlike in England, Ireland sign their key men up to central contracts with the national union, meaning they can manage their time at provincial level.

Next up is three tests in Australia in June where a first series victory in almost 40 years would lay down another marker.

"Knowing the group, this is what we wanted but we'll always want more because we're competitive and we're a little bit greedy," Best said.



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