Carolan confident of bright future
Physical Ireland U-20s primed to build on the disappointments of last year
The grim reality of Ireland not having representation in the last eight of the Champions Cup isn't likely to fully sink in until April but there is plenty that can happen between now and then to lift the sombre mood.
Ireland winning their third consecutive Six Nations title would certainly go some way to softening the blow, while there is a renewed sense of excitement about the current crop of U-20s.
A fifth-place Six Nations finish as well as a disappointing seventh at the U-20 World Championship fell well below the expectations of a side that was littered with exciting talent, particularly in the back-line.
Last year's experience was a steep learning curve for the coaches as well as the players but now, in his second season as head coach, Nigel Carolan has a clearer idea of how he wants his side to play.
As is usually the case, expectations are high this season and there is a particular buzz around the forward pack that is available to Carolan.
All too often last year Ireland were bullied up front but with the added bulk of the likes of James Ryan (108kg) who has been named captain a year after leaving school, Peter Claffey (120kg) and Conan O'Donnell (115kg), there should be no such fears this time.
Carolan has watched Garry Ringrose go from strength to strength since graduating from the Ireland U-20s last season but he believes that Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen have managed him correctly in not rushing him into the international fold.
"There's strength in depth, particularly up front and they will compete very handsomely with any of the U-20 international sides," Carolan maintained.
"Our props are pro standard in terms of their physical development. There are guys there who are getting a lot of exposure in the 'A' sides and the British and Irish Cup and that is battle-hardening them.
"I think there is real quality in this squad and there are guys who, without doubt, I can see playing international rugby, particularly up front.
"Again that might take three or four years. We take Garry Ringrose for example; even this time last year we said he's going to be an international rugby player. It's a case of when.
"I personally think he's being managed correctly in Leinster. He's got a little bit of exposure, he's been recognised by the national side and I think Leo and the guys in Leinster are doing the right thing for him. They're putting him and looking after his needs first. He still needs development, he still needs exposure.
"The step up to international rugby from what he's used to - he's only had a few games at pro level - it's massive.
"It was only a couple of years ago that a lot of these guys were playing U-20 rugby with their clubs and that's certainly miles away from the international standard. I think the club rugby is very, very important but you even compare that to the exposure in the British and Irish Cup when you play a Championship side, they're physically very, very dominant.
"While it can be difficult to compete, it does battle-harden players and that's going to be very important. Unfortunately, the game is very combative and it's trying to deal with that and consistently deal with that, not just in a one-off, that can be a challenge for these players.
"The more exposure they can get on a higher level is going to only benefit them, once it's done with their interests at heart.
"I think Ireland have been looking for a bit of X-factor in the backs and Garry is that. It's about trying to manage the longevity of his career as well and he's only had a handful of games at pro level.
"I think it's important that he continues to develop. He's one that maybe after the Six Nations or at the back end of it, if he got a taste of that it would bring the guy on," he added.
Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane, two of the five new faces in the Six Nations squad, also recently graduated from the U-20s but Carolan isn't surprised by their rapid progress and believes that more from the current crop will soon follow in their footsteps.
"We're trying to create that environment so that the players can achieve whatever they want to achieve," Carolan explained.
"I think a lot of them have gotten pro exposure on the back of last year and it's not because of the 20s, they're on a pathway.
"The 20s is just a notch along the way, it's not the reason Garry Ringrose could be playing for the national side. We want to ensure that the experience he's had with the 20s can add value to his career.
"It's not because of it; he's on the pathway himself to becoming a professional rugby player and an international rugby player.
"As long as this environment adds value to that, it's worthwhile."
Amidst all the apparent doom and gloom, there may yet be light at the end of the tunnel.
Ireland U-20 (Six Nations squad) - James Bollard, Kelvin Browne, Peter Claffey, Will Connors, Max Deegan, Shane Fenton, John Foley, Cillian Gallagher, Greg Jones, Conor Kenny, Adam McBurney, Sean O'Connor, Conan O'Donnell, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Walsh, Matthew Byrne, Brett Connon, Shane Daly, Hugo Keenan, Terry Kennedy, Stephen Kerins, Paul Kiernan, Robert Lyttle, Johnny McPhillips, Conor O'Brien, Jimmy O'Brien, John Poland, Jack Power, Jacob Stockdale.