In Focus: Ireland

Ireland have never before made it past the quarter-final stage at a Rugby World Cup but as they head to Japan, Joe Schmidt’s side have never had a better chance to make history.

Ireland have never before made it past the quarter-final stage at a Rugby World Cup but as they head to Japan, Joe Schmidt’s side have never had a better chance to make history.

They enter the tournament as the No.1 side in the world, have beaten every tier one rival home and away in this last World Cup cycle, and have an eminently navigable pool – where their toughest opponents, on paper at least, are a Scotland side they have fared well against in recent years.

Throw in the fact that this is Schmidt’s swansong – as Ireland’s most successful ever head coach bowing out after the tournament – and they have all the motivation and ingredients to go further than ever before.

But, after a jaw-dropping 2018 that saw a Grand Slam and a first-ever win on home soil over the All Blacks, a few worrying signs have emerged this year.

England beat them in Dublin at the start of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations and Wales did the same at the end to seal their own clean sweep.

The Red Rose then repeated the dose at Twickenham in their warm-up win, racking up eight tries and a record half-century of points.

Throw in some injuries, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy to name two with Robbie Henshaw potentially joining them, and the oath has begun to come slightly rocky.

But back to back warm-up wins over Wales where some of their big guns began to fire again have lifted the mood and mean Ireland arrive in the Far East full of expectation once more.

For a long time in the era of Schmidt, any debate over Ireland’s best player would have inevitably focused on their all-conquering half-backs.

But while Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray remain vital, and Tadhg Furlong is another man whom Ireland rely on, James Ryan has fast emerged as their superstar.

The Leinster second-rower only turned 23 last month and still has less than 20 caps to his name, but already is the first name on any Ireland teamsheet.

With Devin Toner left behind, Ryan will shoulder a heavy load in Ireland’s engine room but the youngster has shown in his still nascent international career that he has the build to handle it.

One of the more unheralded members of Ireland’s pack, the openside now has an incredible opportunity to write his name into legend.

With O’Brien and Leavy absent, Ireland’s No.7 jersey is his for the taking.

The Leinster back-rower has already beaten the All Blacks twice in his career and now will hope to show the world his talents on the biggest stage of all.

He burst onto the scene as a terrific tackler but, like all good opensides, has become a threat with ball in hand as well.

And as Ireland search for the right back row blend, Schmidt needs the 26-year-old to hit the ground running with their toughest pool games up first.

With a front-loaded pool stage, concerns over the fitness of Sexton punctuated the summer months.

But the fly-half finally took to the field in the No.10 jersey for their final warm-up clash against Wales and looked like he had never been away.

With Joey Carbery also battling injury and Jack Carty impressive but inexperienced, Sexton remains Schmidt’s key cog.

The coach’s eyes, ears and mouth on the pitch, Sexton knows Ireland’s gameplan like the back of his hand.

It was his injury more than any other that scuppered their dreams four years ago in the quarter-finals and the No.10 is on a mission to put it right this time around.

His didn’t consistently hit his own brilliant heights in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations but when fully firing the reigning world player of the year is just that, the best in the business.

Schmidt’s Ireland side have got to the top of the world game with a gameplan built on ruthless efficiency.

That begins with the breakdown, where no-one creates quicker ball through relentless recycling quite like Ireland.

During the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, the official stats powered by AWS, found that their ball recycle time from ruck to ruck was far and away the quickest in the Championship.

That ability to retain possession has allowed Ireland to build phase after phase, largely eschewing offloads and instead building pressure and backing their discipline to win out.

Their set-piece, in the scrum in particular under the tutelage of scrum coach Greg Feek, is rock solid but the lineout remains a work-on, particular now Toner has been left behind.

But the inclusion of Jean Kleyn instead of Toner is proof enough that Ireland are focused on dynamism for a World Cup expected to be played on quick pitches and in humid conditions.

Ireland were taught a physical lesson by England in Dublin, and Andy Farrell’s defence that leaked four tries that day and eight more at Twickenham last month, will be itching to set the record straight.

Murray and Sexton will be key to make sure Ireland play the game in the right areas, but Schmidt’s side are not a one-dimensional outfit.

Out wide the attacking threats of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls, not to mention rising star Jordan Larmour, are a match for the world’s best and in Schmidt they have arguably the most creative attacking mind in the game.

His strike moves are the envy of world rugby and have shredded the best defences in the world time after time.

Ireland’s preparations for this World Cup saw them mix and match between the green grass of home and the warmer climes of Portugal.

With a World Cup expected to be played in hot and humid conditions, Schmidt’s side have prepared for the tests to come.

They have to start fast at this World Cup, they face Scotland and Japan inside six days, two clashes that could make or break their tournament.

And after being physically challenged against England in Dublin and again at club level by Saracens who saw off both Leinster and Munster this year, they must get it right this time around.

Their first port of call on landing in Japan has been Chiba. There they have had a chance to acclimatise, both on and off the pitch, to Japanese conditions.

Their official welcome ceremony last week saw skipper Rory Best lead the side in a number of local customs that included colouring in one eye of a Daruma doll, modelled on the founder of the zen branch of Buddhism.

The first eye is coloured in to signify beginning a task, the second comes at the end. And Best and co will hope that end is not until November 2 in Yokohama.

Ireland’s chances of advancing further than ever before hinge on how they start their Pool A campaign.

First up they face their Guinness Six Nations rivals Scotland in Yokohama. Schmidt’s side have beaten Scotland six times out of seven under his watch – repeat the trick on Sunday and they take a huge step towards the knockout rounds.

Six days later in Shizuoka, the hosts Japan lie in wait and Schmidt will know that they cannot underestimate their tricky opponents.

But get through both of those games unscathed and top spot in Pool A is within striking distance as they finish the group with trips to Kobe and Fukuoka to take on Russia and then Samoa.

Strong sides both but ones Ireland will expect to see off handsomely and then quarter-finals in Tokyo loom large.

Ireland v Scotland, Sunday September 22, Yokohama, 08:45AM (all times GMT)

Ireland v Japan, Saturday September 28, Shizuoka, 08:15AM

Ireland v Russia, Thursday October 3, Kobe, 11:15AM

Ireland v Samoa, Saturday October 12, Fukuoka, 11:45AM