There is little doubting that Ireland are one of the favourites to lift the Webb-Ellis Cup this year, with them in such good form at the moment and looking increasingly unbeatable whenever they step out onto the field.
It should be mentioned, however, that their record at the Rugby World Cup is not actually that impressive, with them never managing to get beyond the quarter-final stage and even failing to make it out of their pool in 2007, having beaten Namibia and Georgia but suffering defeats to hosts France and Argentina.
This year, the current world no.1s will be looking to put those disappointing results behind them as they look to not only progress from their pool but to reach the latter stages of the competition, and, as mentioned, they are seen by many as a team capable of going all the way.
Joe Schmidt will always be a favourite of the Irish fans, not only because of the success that he delivered on the field, but for his efforts off it in the grassroots game and his desire to help spread the rugby message around the entirety of Ireland.
However, since stepping up to replace him, current head coach Andy Farrell, who was Schmidt’s defence coach for the last three years of the New Zealander’s tenure, has undoubtedly taken the team even further, with him increasing their attacking potency and making them much tighter in defence.
There were some doubts over his suitability for the role when he took over, and he has faced pressure at times when Ireland haven’t been playing so well, but there is little doubt that he has quashed those concerns with the way that he has taken Ireland to the summit of the world rankings, and he is now widely seen as the person most capable of taking them all the way at this year’s World Cup.
The key characteristics of Ireland’s attack are strong carries with the ball and excellent passing ability, and both are central to everything that the team do well.
However, they are adaptable and do find different ways to win matches, and that is what makes them so dangerous. Whilst they can play the long game and work for every inch of territory through carries and constant attempts to get over the gain line, they can also put together a series of clever passes and make the ball do the work, and that is one of the primary reasons why, even when things have looked to be against them, they have generally found a way to win.
The fact that Ireland have such a well-rounded squad also means that, whilst some teams might worry about a key player suffering a major injury, they generally don’t, because they always have a replacement available who can step in without disrupting the overall flow of their play.
There are exceptions to that at times, but they are rare, and that shows again how strong Ireland are and is again why they continue to stand out as a team to be feared.
As mentioned, defending is something that Farrell and his coaching staff have spent a great deal of time on, and both he and defence coach Simon Easterby deserve an enormous amount of credit for ensuring that, for all of Ireland’s exciting and attacking play, their defending has been organised and generally watertight, and there is little doubting that it has played just as big a role in their strong form and rise to the top.
One of the key tactical points to pick out is their ability to double up on opponents when out of possession, as that has given the team a greater chance of stopping opposing ball-carriers from making territorial gains whenever they have looked to push forwards.
That only works if the whole team is invested in what they are looking to do though, and that would be the undoing of many. However, the fact that Ireland have made it work so efficiently shows how teamwork is once again at the heart of everything that they have done well under Farrell and his coaching team.
It is always difficult to pick out star names to look out for in the Irish squad, with every player worthy of a mention for what they bring to the team.
However, the one person who will be front and centre of everything that the team do in France will be their talismanic captain Johnny Sexton, not only because of his unerring accuracy from the tee but also because of his leadership skills and the fact that the rest of the team listens when he speaks.
He will be hanging his boots up at the end of the World Cup, meaning that Ireland will have to get used to the idea of him not being around. However, if he can get through an injury problem that has left him unable to play consistently during the latter stages of the season, he will be someone that Ireland will want to get onto the field wherever possible and who the team will be desperate to give the sendoff that he has merited.
Despite the concerns over how much Sexton will play at the World Cup, it does feel like Ireland’s time has finally come to lift the Webb-Ellis Cup, with them achieving a series win in New Zealand last year (the first team in the professional era to gain one) and rising to top spot in the world rankings, and another Grand Slam in the Six Nations earlier this year only served to increase the hype around them and the expectation of what they could do in France.
They would have to get past some heavyweights to reach the final, with their half of the draw containing the likes of France and New Zealand, but it would be a shock to see them fall before the final and an eyebrow-raising moment if anyone does manage to get the better of them once the action gets underway.