Ireland have scaled significant psychological hurdles in the past four years. Are they now, Gavan Casey asks, ready put in their best ever World Cup performance in Japan?
"Schmidt has made no bones about the fact that his Ireland are hellbent on being the side to finally break the country's quarter-final duck and reach the last four."
The untimely death last Friday of the great Chester Williams - the sole black player in the 1995 South African squad which, in winning the Rugby World Cup, altered the course of a nation's history - offered a timely reminder as to how sport can unite people like no other social activity.
Joe Schmidt's 31-man Ireland squad took flight for Japan on Wednesday seeking their own piece of altogether more trivial on-field history, in their rear-view a stormy summer which proved that sport can also be a fickle beast: it takes only the odd game for an expert to become an eejit, or for an eejit to become an expert. And there's no real middle ground.
Where following a record defeat in Twickenham, the sirens sounded and that most ghastly of Irish-rugby terms - '2007' - began to escape the tips of tongues, the dust would settle two Wales Tests later to reveal eggy smiles on plenty of faces and a travelling Irish panel in high spirits, confident they can have a significant say in this year's showpiece.
And so, in Joe we trust again.
How are Ireland shaping up?
Schmidt doubtless never lost belief in himself or his methods, but make no mistake about it: the rinsing at the hands of Eddie Jones' England last month was a spanner in the works. The coaching staff and even the players would have expected to lose in London for the simple fact that England were riper by way of their two Tests with Wales and Ireland were heavy-legged, Twickenham essentially a stop-off from a lengthy period of intensive fitness training in Portugal.
But the embarrassing nature of the defeat and its margin was an issue - Schmidt's atypical decision to address the media early the following week was proof enough of that. And while that top-table appearance did little to ease the angstof the general public, it provided a PC version of the message surely received by his players ahead of Ireland's trip to Cardiff the following weekend: either stand up and be counted or sit down and be counted out.
Their subsequent 22-17 win against Grand Slam champions Wales came with a hefty dollop of salt in that both Schmidt and Warren Gatland fielded a host of peripheral squad figures and Ireland tailed off towards the death. But between a badge-thumping brace by Jacob Stockdale and an impressive second-half cameo by Irish captain Rory Best - both Ulstermen looking possessed following a week of public roastings - as well as a first pre-season unleashing of the preposterously good player that is James Ryan, signs were that Ireland had steadied their course.
A week later, signs were better still. Ireland's more dominant 19-10 victory over the same opposition in Dublin, this time with both Schmidt and Gatland fielding the majority of their frontliners, came with its own caveats: whereas the consensus was that Ireland still needed a positive send-off, Wales were halfway to Japan; they enjoyed their own going-away shindig with friends and family beneath the Principality Stadium roof only a few nights prior, their preparation all but done upon arrival across the water.
But whether or not the Welsh were truly invested in that final warm-up Test shouldn't distract from the fact that Ireland showed signs of being on a trajectory which should see them hit the ground running in their pool opener with Scotland, their collision fitness accrued and their gas tanks nearing capacity.
Navigating the pool
Scottish head coach Gregor Townsend said during his own World Cup squad's unveiling at Linlithgow Palace: "When they play to their potential they are capable of beating any team in the world."
The Scots have more or less shown this to be true if they're playing any team in the world at Murrayfield, but the starker truth is that they scarcely play to that potential anywhere else. The blueprint for beating the Scots has been laid by Ireland among others: batter them with one-out runners until the dam breaks. Townsend's men have done little to disprove the validity of that trope - see their warm-up defeat to France in Paris.
Provided Ireland box clever in Yokohama on 22 September, by minimalising Scotland's opportunities to counter in broken play, they should go a long way towards topping their pool within the space of just one game.
Hosts Japan will surely provide a hearty test in Shizuoka six days later, but barring tournament-ending injuries to key players early doors, Ireland could well find themselves in the advantageous position of rounding off their pool with two games versus Russia (Kobe, 3 October) and Samoa (Fukuoka, 12 October) in which Schmidt can shuffle his deck and simply keep things ticking over towards the last eight.
Contrast this with the debacle of four years ago, when Ireland poured everything into a final pool fixture with France and finished top but shorn of captain Paul O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien - the latter albeit due to a citing. Their supposed reward of a last-eight clash with Argentina (and not New Zealand, who put France out of their misery) finished with a defeat which still gnawsat the Irish psyche four years on.
Of course, this year, the purported luck of landing a reasonable pool schedule juxtaposes comically with the potential quarter-final which follows, in which Ireland will be landed with either New Zealand or Rugby Championship winners South Africa, who are essentially a team of man-bears.
And so it must be rolled out once again, the big question: can Ireland finally get over that last-eight hurdle?
Schmidt's men to break the quarter-final duck
Ireland enter the tournament with the weird distinction of being officially ranked as the number one side in world rugby while quite understandably being unfancied by many to reach even the last four of what is essentially an eight-team competition. (We had a look at being the world's best last November and, eh, we might plough on with the underdog tag for now, if it's all the same to the rest of you).
Schmidt has made no bones about the fact that his Ireland are hellbent on being the side to finally break the country's quarter-final duck and reach the last four. On the one hand, it's a slight concernto hear of it acknowledged at all as a kind of psychological Everest. On the other hand, Ireland have over the course of this World Cup cycle laid several psychological markers by way of 'firsts': a first-ever win over New Zealand (2016), a first-ever win over New Zealand in Dublin (2018), a first-ever Test win in South Africa (2016), and a first Test series win in Australia in 39 years (2018).
With all of this in mind - and granted this is a fairly concerning admission in its own right - New Zealand strike as the ever-so-slightly-more favourable option in the last eight.
It's a case of 'pick your poison', of course. But purely because this Irish side has previously shown the collective belligerence required to best the All Blacks, and because they're yet to square off with Rassie Erasmus' new and vastly improved South Africa - whom Ireland, comparably lacking in man-bear power, simply won't be able to hold off physically - a former sparring partner might be marginally more tolerable.
But whether it's the 'Boks or the All Blacks, either team should be fairly fresh for a quarter-final simply by way of their pool layout: they square off in their opener and have only Italy, Namibia and Canada to negotiate from that point onwards. They will be primed for the sizeable task of an Irish showdown, reeling from the residual sting of a kick up the backside received in Yokohama on 21 September. A dangerous beast indeed.
And while we shouldn't underestimateJoe Schmidt in a one-off against any head coach or team in world rugby, it can't be overstated just how good both of Ireland's prospective quarter-final opponents are. New Zealand and South Africa are two of the best three teams in the world along with England, and Wales fans are probably within their rights to be furious at such a snub given they've beaten England (twice) and the 'Boks within the last 12 months.
Physical brutality will win this World Cup. South Africa and their monstrous pack could conceivably mow down anybody - including the All Blacks - until they face England in a Goliath vs Goliath semi. New Zealand are scarcely pigeonsthemselves, and might well have enough footballing brilliance in them to beat the 'Boks in any case. The two southern hemisphere nations are locked at 83-83 on aggregate over their last three encounters - time will tell who edges the fourth, and maybe even a fifth should they both reach the decider.
But one of their paths will converge with Ireland's. Both sides are sufficiently well-oiled to perpetuate Irish World-Cup heartbreak. And neither will slow down in Japan.
What's less certain is that Ireland, their recent progression through a few gears notwithstanding, can get up to speed quickly enough to win a game in which literally every facet of the game would have to be executed to perfection.
The betting momentum is on South Africa to win the tournament outright, and with good reason. New Zealand remain the overall favourites, and with good reason.
Ireland will have to take out one of them if they are to make a first-ever semi-final. Schmidt's men might have turned the corner, but you couldn't back against the beastly 'Boks or the still-awesome All Blacks who lie in wait around the other side of it.
What's another four years, eh? My prediction is that Ireland will top their pool but gallantly bow out at the quarter-final stage...again. And when it comes to the final crunch, South Africa will win the Rugby World Cup outright.
Get more Rugby World Cup 2019 tips insight from the panel on Rugby...Only Bettor, Betfair's tournament podcast. Episode one is here