Not too long ago, Ireland were looking like one of the hot favourites for this autumn’s Rugby World Cup in Japan. Off the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018, Joe Schmidt’s side defeated the All Blacks in Dublin that autumn, and Irish eyes were looking eagerly east towards Japan and the mouth-watering prospect of World Cup glory at last.
The intervening twelve months have represented something of a crashing back down to earth. Ireland’s 2019 Six Nations campaign was an unmitigated disappointment. Defeat to England on the opening weekend set the tone, and their limp display in the final match against Wales bookended a tournament that proved this squad is not the finished article by any means.
Another loss to England in a recent World Cup warm-up fixture will have been a further cause of worry for many Irish rugby fans, and the feel-good factor that once pervaded squad and support alike seems to have dissipated somewhat in recent months. With Ireland’s World Cup record telling a rather sorry tale, it could be that these recent setbacks are the harbingers of yet more heartache on the world stage.
Ireland have never progressed further than the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, with the 2015 edition of the tournament ending in disappointment once again as Argentina got the better of Schmidt’s men, despite Ireland impressing in the pool stage with four wins from four.
It looked to be Ireland’s best chance yet to finally reach the semi-finals, but old habits seemingly die hard, and a familiar feeling of quarter-final misery enveloped the nation once again.
2011 was a similar story, with an abject display against Wales putting paid to Ireland’s chances in New Zealand. 2007 represented a failure to advance past the pool stage, and both the 2003 and 1995 iterations of the tournament saw Irish hopes scuppered by the French.
As another World Cup gets underway, it is important that Ireland vanquish any ghosts of past failure that might be lingering among the squad. The only way to do that is by winning.
The pool stage shouldn’t throw up too many difficulties if minds are focused and complacency guarded against. Scotland have thwarted Ireland in the past in the Six Nations, most recently at Murrayfield in 2017, but if Ireland are at their best then it will be difficult for Gregor Townsend’s side to match them.
Hosts Japan could prove a tough test if they can use home advantage to good effect, and their defeat of South Africa in Brighton four years ago is a cautionary tale, but you would expect Ireland’s firepower to be too strong. Russia and Samoa should cause minimal fuss, and in many ways Ireland’s recent defeats could have a positive effect in terms of guarding against complacency.
Rugby can often throw up surprises when you least expect them, and while Ireland are firm favourites in their pool, those who bet on Rugby World Cup with Betfair odds may be eyeing an upset.
The real test for this Irish side could come in the quarter-final. Should Ireland progress from the pool stage, they will likely face New Zealand or South Africa, and either would stand as a monumental challenge to this World Cup success-starved Irish team.
The couple of victories Ireland have enjoyed over the All Blacks in recent years will give them hope, and likewise a convincing win over South Africa in November 2017 means Ireland won’t fear the Springboks. However, these are sides that usually bring their A-games to the World Cup, and facing either would be a test far greater than the occasional Autumn International.
That said, if Ireland were to overcome one of those storied rugby nations in the quarter-final, it would be a major boost of confidence, and would shatter the idea that Ireland are bound to always fall at the last eight hurdle.
Overcoming that mental obstacle has to be a priority for Joe Schmidt, and while players and coach alike will say prior failures have no effect on the present, the significance of potentially reaching the semi-final would certainly play on the minds of all should Ireland find themselves locked in a tight quarter-final.
Momentum is everything in rugby, and for Ireland to exorcise the memories of past World Cup heartache and any subconscious doubts in players’ minds, the winning machine that stormed world rugby not too long ago must kick into gear once again.
While recent results have been disappointing, perhaps it’s all bubbling towards an explosion of the kind of rugby we all know Ireland are capable of playing at this upcoming World Cup.