Ireland’s defence of their Guinness Six Nations crown ultimately fell short at the start of 2019 – but they will head to Japan this summer confident of a best-ever campaign.
Joe Schmidt’s men have broken new ground since the last World Cup four years ago. They have beaten New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at home and away, and won a Grand Slam in 2018.
This summer’s training camps, first in Galway and currently in Limerick, are their last under Schmidt.
The Kiwi coach will head home after Japan but will be desperate to sign off on a high and lead Ireland past the quarter-final stage for the first time in their history.
Ireland will play four fixtures before departing for Japan on the 11th September.
Their first clash of the summer comes on August 10 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and sees them face off with Guinness Six Nations rivals Italy.
The Galway sun shone on The Sportsground last Friday as the Ireland squad welcomed 3,500 supporters to an Open Training session at the home of @ConnachtRugby. Take a look back at a great day. #ShoulderToShoulder
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) July 15, 2019
Two weeks later and they are off to Twickenham to take on England, who downed them in Dublin at the start of the year.
A week later and it is a return to Cardiff for the first time since that Grand Slam decider in March.
And their final clash before setting sail sees Wales repay the favour in Dublin.
Warm-ups in full
IRELAND v Italy
Saturday 10th August, Aviva Stadium, KO: 2.00pm
(Game televised by RTE & Channel 4)
England v IRELAND
Saturday 24th August, Twickenham Stadium, KO: 3.00pm
(Game televised by SKY)
Wales v IRELAND
Saturday 31st August, Principality Stadium, KO: 2.30pm
(Games televised by Channel 4) IRELAND v Wales
IRELAND v Wales
Saturday 7th September, Aviva Stadium, KO: 2.00pm
(Game televised by RTE & Channel 4)
Schmidt named a 44-strong training squad at the back end of May for this World Cup and the training camps began last month.
After camps in Galway and now Limerick – along with their usual base in Maynooth, Schmidt and his coaching staff will be beginning to make plans to slim down their crew to 31.
At the squad announcement, Schmidt said: “The provinces have done a great job throughout the season with all four of them being involved in two sets of play-offs.
“There were some very close calls in selection and it’s always a challenging process because the coaching group are very conscious of how hard the players work. It’s ideal that they get a good opportunity to relax for a few weeks before getting stuck into pre-season training and busy ‘Summer Series’ in the lead up to the World Cup.
“Some players have missed out through injury and there are one or two guys that may be added into the squad at a later stage.”
Rory Best will captain the squad in all likelihood before taking his retirement while there is a plethora of forward talent to choose from.
British & Irish Lions like Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson are strong bets to make the plane while James Ryan in the second row has established himself as one of the best in the business.
The back row has a few question marks, as injury means both Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien will not be heading to the far east.
The experience of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander will help while Jordi Murphy and Josh van der Flier will both be itching to get on the plane.
In the backs, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton remain the shot-callers, although the latter’s strained thumb has hampered his summer preparations.
There is class everywhere you look in the three-quarters – Jacob Stockdale, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour, to name but a few.
Throw in the experience of Rob Kearney and there is the making of a serious side that can head to Japan full of confidence.
Rugby World Cup Pool
When they get to Japan, preparations begin in earnest for a tough but navigable Pool A for Schmidt’s men.
They open up against their Guinness Six Nations rivals Scotland in Yokohama for what is sure to be a crunch clash.
But Ireland have downed Scotland in six of the last seven meetings, including home and away in the last two Championships.
Their second clash sees them take on hosts Japan in what is sure to be a vital encounter in Shizuoka.
After that, it is on to Kobe to take on Russia before rounding out their Pool campaign at Toyota Stadium for a match-up with Samoa.