'I think we will kick on' - Paul O'Connell explains why this summer could leave Ireland in a 'great place' next season
Ireland's Six Nations campaign draws to a close on Saturday evening as Joe Schmidt's side look to halt a rampant England side at the Aviva Stadium.
After a southern hemisphere clean sweep in 2016, hopes were high that Ireland could win their third Grand Slam, or add a third Six Nations crown in four seasons under Schmidt. Instead, they host Eddie Jones' men with the championship already decided, needing a win to ensure they remain a top seed for the upcoming 2019 World Cup draw.
And while fans are disappointed that Ireland couldn't challenge England for Six Nations glory in 2017, supporters will no doubt be delighted if this four-year cycle ends with a successful World Cup campaign in Japan in 2019.
To that end, Paul O'Connell thinks Schmidt and Ireland are building nicely.
Speaking at the Six Nations Rugby Lunch hosted by Haven, a prominent Irish NGO working on the ground in Haiti, the legendary Ireland captain lamented the missed chances against Wales last Friday night, but stressed that there were positives for fans to take going forward.
Most notably, O'Connell feels that this summer could be crucial in the development of the squad. A number of Ireland stars are likely to tour New Zealand with the Lions this summer, which will improve them further, while Schmidt will lead a tour of youngsters to USA and Japan, after which the hope is that there are a couple of new faces ready to join the first team.
"The expectation with Joe as is that we win the Six Nations every year and when we don't there are big questions asked," O'Connell said.
"I think we are making very good progress. I think we'll have a lot of players on the Lions. I think we'll blood some more players in the summer when the Lions are away. I think Ireland will kick on and be in a great place."
O'Connell also tipped a number of Joe Schmidt's team to be involved in Warren Gatland's Lions squad this summer.
"I think a lot of Irish players have played well over a long period of time, they haven't just showed up for one season," O'Connell said.
"The likes of Jamie [Heaslip], Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Jack McGrath. We have an awful lot of players who have been playing very good rugby for a very long time."
Haven’s projects open access to clean water and sanitation, promote sustainable social enterprise, strengthen skills and education, and empower families in Haiti to break free from poverty. For more information, please visit the Haven website at www.havenpartnership.com, call +353 1 681 5442, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.