'Grand Slam defence and Olympics part of huge 2024 for Irish rugby'

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Garry Ringrose scores a try in Ireland's Six Nations win over France earlier this yearIreland begin their bid for a historic second straight Six Nations Grand Slam away to France having beaten Les Bleus in a classic in Dublin in this year's championship

There is no doubt that 2023 stirred mixed emotions in everyone connected with Irish rugby.

The men's team boasted an impeccable record for most of the year, winning a fourth Six Nations Grand Slam - and first since 2018 - as they established themselves as the best team in the world.

But as has often been the case down the years, excitement surrounding Ireland's Rugby World Cup prospects turned to anguish with yet another quarter-final exit.

For the senior women's side, the past 12 months have been tumultuous. A winless Six Nations led to a change of personnel with Scott Bemand succeeding Greg McWilliams as head coach.

And following the ecstasy and agony of 2023, the next 12 months promise to bring Irish rugby fans on another captivating journey with more championship action, a tour to South Africa and Olympic bids for the Sevens teams.

BBC Sport NI previews the year ahead in Irish rugby.

Back-to-back Grand Slams?

Winning consecutive Grand Slams in the Six Nations era is unheard of. In fact, the last team to clinch back-to-back Grand Slams was France in 1998 in the penultimate edition of the Five Nations. Since Italy's inclusion in 2000, no team has put together a perfect 10-game sequence.

That is what Ireland will try to achieve in 2024. With Andy Farrell having extended his contract until the next World Cup, the road to Australia 2027 starts here.

Under Farrell, Ireland have become the Six Nations' dominant force. They were breathtaking at times on their way to a fourth Grand Slam this year, beating Wales, Italy and Scotland on the road and downing France and England at home, with the Les Bleus tussle one of the greatest championship games in recent times.

Ireland have won nine of their last 10 Six Nations games stretching back to the beginning of the 2022 campaign, but extending their winning run will be no small feat this time around with a trip to France providing a mouth-watering start to the tournament on 2 February.

Farrell has not managed to win in France during his reign, and while the Irish will be favourites to beat Italy and Wales at home in rounds two and three, a trip to England and a Dublin Test against Scotland represents a hugely testing end to the campaign.

Who will fill the Sexton-shaped hole in the Ireland team?

Jack Crowley (Munster), Ciaran Frawley, Sam Prendergast (both Leinster) and Jack Carty (Connacht)Jack Crowley (Munster), Ciaran Frawley, Sam Prendergast (both Leinster) and Jack Carty (Connacht) all have designs on succeeding Johnny Sexton as Ireland's starting fly-half

Of course, the biggest conundrum staring Farrell in the face this year is the Johnny Sexton-shaped hole in his squad.

With the talisman's retirement following the World Cup, Farrell faces the unenviable task of settling on a worthy successor to Sexton in the No.10 shirt.

At the World Cup, Sexton was supported by Munster's Jack Crowley and Ross Byrne, who was long in Sexton's shadow at Leinster.

As it stands, with no Ireland match between now and France, Crowley is the frontrunner but Farrell - who is yet to confirm Sexton's replacement as captain - will be keeping a close eye on the provinces, meaning Ciaran Frawley (Leinster), Jack Carty (Connacht) and Sam Prendergast (Leinster) will all hope to get their shot.

But given Sexton's creative ingenuity and leadership skills, slipping on the 10 shirt and playing in the white-hot championship cauldron will be a daunting proposition for whoever Farrell picks.

A new era for Ireland's women

It is a new era for the Irish women's team, who hope to put a difficult 2023 behind them.

After a Six Nations campaign which yielded zero points, McWilliams was replaced by Bemand. By the time Bemand was appointed, he had already lost his captain with Nichola Fryday opting to follow her predecessor Ciara Griffin's lead and retire in her late twenties.

And while the Bemand era began with easy wins over Kazakhstan, Colombia and Spain in Tier 3 of the new WXV competition, the Six Nations will provide a much sterner examination of the team's early progress under the former England women's team attack coach.

Like the men's team, Ireland will begin their Six Nations away to France (23 March) before home matches with Italy and Wales, a trip to holders England and a climactic fixture at home to Scotland.

Ireland have not won the championship since 2015, so while dethroning England may be unrealistic at this stage - especially if Bemand can not call upon the sevens contingent in his squad - fans will hope that Bemand can at least get the team back on the right track.

Two Tests with the world champs

Having already led Ireland to a historic Test series triumph over the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2022, Farrell hopes to mastermind another major southern hemisphere scalp in the shape of the world champions.

And while South Africa have lifted the last two World Cups, Ireland have won their last three meetings with the Springboks - and five of the last seven - including a thunderous World Cup Pool B win in Paris.

Ireland achieved their first Test win over the Boks on South African soil in 2016. Adding to that during their two-Test tour next summer will be uppermost in Farrell's wishlist for 2024.

As for minor sub-plots, the Tests in Pretoria and Durban on 6 and 13 July may offer Ireland's Munster contingent to face Boks lock RG Snyman for the first time after his move to rivals Leinster.

It will also be Ireland's first matches under new performance director David Humphreys with the former Ulster and Ireland out-half set to replace David Nucifora in June.

Olympic campaigns for men's and women's Sevens teams

Ireland women's sevens captain Lucy MulhallLucy Mulhall will captain the Irish women's sevens team in their Olympic debut

While it promises to be a big year in the XVs game, sevens will take centre stage in the summer with the men's and women's teams bidding for Olympic glory in Paris.

This will be the men's team's second Olympic campaign having featured at the Tokyo Games in 2021, while the women's side will be making their debut.

In his last act as the IRFU's performance director, Nucifora will oversee the preparation programme for the Games with the Australian recently revealing that four XVs players - one from each province - will be given the chance to make the sevens squad for Paris.

This follows France captain Antoine Dupont's decision to skip the Six Nations in order to chase an Olympic medal.

Ulster's Robert Baloucoune, Cormac Izuchukwu, Aaron Sexton and Nick Timoney and Leinster's Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O'Brien and Will Connors all have Sevens experience with Ireland.

The Irish women, meanwhile, have an abundance of talent in the shape of Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Beibhinn Parson and Eve Higgins, but face a monumental challenge in trying to edge out the likes of Australia, New Zealand and France for medals.

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