Ireland's historic success in New Zealand bodes well ahead of the new season
The unforgettable euphoria that greeted Ireland's historic series win in New Zealand still looms large, as another new season is upon us.
It seems like only yesterday that we witnessed those joyous scenes at full-time in Wellington, when Ireland beat the All Blacks in the decisive third Test.
Written by: Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
For all that the page will turn, and the focus will shift back to the four provinces for the beginning of the United Rugby Championship (URC), Irish rugby is still riding the crest of a wave after a memorable summer for both the Ireland men's and women's teams, as they created history at the other side of the world.
For Andy Farrell's men, a first win over the All Blacks on Kiwi soil was followed a week later by a series-clinching victory, which was arguably the country's greatest achievement on a rugby pitch.
Then there was Greg McWilliams' women's team, who embarked on their first-ever summer tour, and while Ireland will be disappointed that they didn't back up their opening win in Japan, there were plenty of positives from the drawn series.
As the club season beckons, the challenge for the provinces is to build on the momentum generated on the back of some outstanding performances.
After returning to the summit of the world rankings, Ireland know that they have a target on their backs, but rather than be daunted by the challenges that lie ahead in what is a huge season that will culminate in next year's World Cup, Farrell wants his players to embrace the pressure.
Having followed Ireland around New Zealand for a month, one of the most noticeable things from regularly speaking to Farrell and the Ireland players was how calm they were.
Even after the first Test defeat in Eden Park, there was never any sense of panic from anyone within the squad.
Instead, there was a shared belief amongst the players and coaches that Ireland had the beating of the All Blacks in their own backyard, and so it proved across the following two enthralling weeks in Dunedin and Wellington.
For all that Ireland scored some sublime tries throughout the five games they played in New Zealand, it was perhaps the mental resilience shown that offered the most reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead.
In times gone by, when the going has got tough on the main stage, Ireland have been unable to find a way to get the job done, but Farrell has seemingly created a steely toughness that should stand to this group of players going forward.
The Test team rightly received most of the plaudits for their achievements, yet it is also worth highlighting the fact that that midweek team, which was made up of younger, less experienced players, made similar levels of improvement in their mini-series with the Māori All Blacks.
Such were the heights that were scaled by the end of the tour, it's easy to forget that Ireland lost their opening two games in Hamilton and Auckland.
Those defeats in the first week could easily have set the tone for the rest of the tour, only Farrell masterminded a comeback of epic proportions.
Experienced players like Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony rolled back the years to remind everyone of their enduring class, while newer faces such as Dan Sheehan, Gavin Coombes and Tom O'Toole showed just why they have such bright futures ahead of them in a green jersey.
Confirmation of an Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa later this month will see even more young stars get a chance to stake their claim and impress ahead of the November internationals, which will see defending world champions the Springboks, Fiji and Australia arrive in Dublin for another three important tests en route to France 2023.
All roads lead to next year's World Cup, but with so much rugby to be played from now until then, there are places up for grabs, as those who were part of the series win look to maintain their place in the team, with those who missed out desperate for a piece of the action.
Leinster will be eager to bounce back from last season's trophyless season, while Munster will be looking for a change in fortunes from their new-look coaching staff.
There has been plenty of change out west in Connacht too, with Ulster aiming to build on last season, which promised so much, but like their fellow provinces, their campaign ultimately ended in disappointment.
In Farrell's eyes, the summer tour was the starting point of Ireland's World Cup voyage, and having gotten off to a flyer, Ireland must ensure that they haven't peaked too early, just as they did in 2018 before they arrived in Japan a year later.
This feels different, however, not least because no one is getting ahead of themselves despite toppling the All Blacks. And as an aside, don't let anyone devalue Ireland's series victory on the back of New Zealand's continued struggles in the Rugby Championship. What this squad achieved was truly special.
As Ireland know all too well, between form and injuries, so much can happen between now and next September, but as Farrell has been keen to stress, the journey that lies ahead is one that should be embraced rather than feared.