Bookmakers have slashed odds on Ireland to win the World Cup after they clinched the 2018 Six Nations title by claiming a bonus point win over Scotland in Dublin, whilst England succumbed to a defeat at the hands of France.
Ireland have produced impressive performances throughout the championship, finishing 11 points ahead of their closest competitor, Wales.
The strength of the current Irish side is clear through the fact that in their first four games in the tournament, they claimed three bonus-point wins, with a floundering England side to play at Twickenham on the final weekend.
Winning a Grand Slam by defeating England on St. Patrick’s Day in London was a memorable experience for Irish fans, as it is only their third ever Grand Slam. Furthermore, they have done it the ‘hard way’ as they have faced both France and England, two of the best teams in the championship, away from home.
Yet, whilst Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt and his players have kept their focus on the Six Nations in recent weeks, their attention will soon turn towards the fast-approaching 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
By winning the Six Nations title, Ireland have marked themselves as the current best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Autumn Internationals of 2017 they also asserted dominance over strong Southern Hemisphere sides such as South Africa, Argentina and Fiji.
The success of the Irish national side in recent months has been recognised by bookmakers who now rank them as second favourites for the World Cup, behind current holders New Zealand.
It should also be remembered that in the penultimate meeting between Ireland and New Zealand in Autumn 2016, the Irish claimed an historic 40-29 victory over the All Blacks.
Irish fans would be forgiven for being cautious when assessing their side’s chances in the World Cup, as they know better than anyone that Irish teams have never fulfilled their potential on the biggest stage of them all.
The upcoming World Cup in Japan will be the ninth World Cup since its inauguration in 1987, and in the eight tournaments that have taken place, Ireland have only ever made it as far as the quarter-final stage.
At the last World Cup, in 2015, Ireland crashed out in the quarter-finals to Argentina. They had won the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations immediately before that World Cup, a very similar situation to the one that the Irish side find themselves in now.
Despite their poor history at World Cups, Ireland arguably find themselves in a better position than they have ever been in before.
Whilst stalwarts of previous teams such as the great Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara may no longer feature in the green jersey, the Irish squad is an exceptionally strong one.
In the forwards, the Irish are extremely solid. The front-row features world-class players such as British and Irish Lions Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath. The second-row also features quality in the form of Lion Ian Henderson and the imposing Devin Toner, whilst the Irish back-row is one of the best in world rugby with the likes of CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony.
The back-line may not have as much experience as the pack, but they are exceptionally frightening for opposition defences. Scrum-half Conor Murray is believed by many to be the best nine in the world, whilst fly-half Johnny Sexton and full-back Rob Kearney have invaluable experience, having won Six Nations titles and competed at World Cups. The outside backs have also lit up this Six Nations championship, with winger Jacob Stockdale becoming the first man to score seven tries in a single Six Nations campaign.
Whilst Ireland have poor memories of World Cups, they have a squad capable of going all the way in 2019.
Image courtesy of Arun Marsh