Connacht’s progress is highlighted by their scrumhalf Kieran Marmion signing a new two-year deal with the province. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Pat Lam’s side have found a level of stability that is allowing them to compete with best

Leinster’s Devin Toner attempts to win the ball from Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson of Ulster during their Pro12 clash. Photo: Billy Stickland/Ipnho

Seán Cronin’s lone first half try was enough to separate the sides in their Pro12 clash

Wasps player  Simon McIntyre tries to tackle Leinster’s Ian Madigan during the European Rugby Champions Cup match  on November 15th. Photograph:  Ian Walton/Getty Images

Coach envisages the 26-year-old remaining as an outhalf-cum-inside-centre this season

Ulster have received a boost with the news that captain Rory Best has signed a new two-year contract to stay with the province. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Leo Cullen’s side aim to shake off the ill effects of Ireland’s World Cup campaign

Ian Madigan and Jack McGrath both start for Leinster against Ulster on Friday night. Photograph: Inpho

Leo Cullen starts Ian Madigan in midfield with Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden rested

Connacht head coach Pat Lam: “You want a full complement to select from, but the thing that I’m pleased with is the way that we have trained as a squad.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

League leaders hoping to end their bad away record at Thomond Park fortress

John Muldoon: “I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to win in Munster before I retire, it’s one of the places where I have never won at senior level.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht veteran has unfulfilled ambition as the league leaders travel with high hopes

Jamie Heaslip dejected after Leinster’s 19-16 defeat away to Bath in the European Rugby Champions Cup second round at weekend. Province is now 33/1 to win pool. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Pro12 is already assuming more importance for remainder of Ulster and Leinster seasons

Mike Ford, the Bath director of rugby looks on during the Champions Cup match between Bath and Leinster at the Recreation Ground on November 21st, 2015 in Bath, England. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Coach says lack of focus against Leinster would have been punished by Toulon

Leo Cullen after the Bath game: “I would ask the fans just to be patient and to come out and back the team on Friday.”   Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leinster coach turns his focus to Ulster clash as his side seek a morale-boosting win

 Josh van der Flier runs in for his side’s try during the European Champions Cup game against Bath at The Recreation Ground. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Toulon double-header next on European menu for Leo Cullen’s stuttering side

Charles Piutau scores in the dying minutes against Leinster in the European Champions Cup match at the RDS.Photograph:  Brian Lawless/PA Wire.

More than ever province needs to generate revenue itself and failure on pitch doesn’t help

 Ian Madigan, Hayden Triggs and Isaac Boss have some fun at Leinster squad training. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Province boast an unbeaten record at The Rec but English side are hungry for revenge

All-Black great Jonah Lomu has died at the age of 40. Photo: Martin Hayhow/PA Wire

Gerry Thornley: ‘His immense size and power was hard to even comprehend’

“It hits home a bit more when you have lived there for a few years,” said Jonathan Sexton on the Paris terror attacks. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland outhalf who spent two seasons in Paris was shocked by terrorist attacks

The Leinster squad during training on Tuesday. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Te’o, Ruddock and Fitzgerald should be available but province less certain on other walking wounded

Leinster’s Ian Madigan and Zane Kirchner with Bradley Davies and Jake Cooper-Woolley of Wasps during the Champions Cup clash at the RDS. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Failure to beat Bath at the Rec and Leo Cullen’s side are out of European reckoning

Ireland last took on New Zealand in November 2013. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The Irish Times has learned that Ireland will play the All Blacks in the US for the first time

Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud and Guilhem Guirado tackle Rob Kearney of Leinster in last year’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. Toulon are second favourites to win their fourth Cup in a row. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Not since the late 1990s have prospects looked so glum – we can but be pleasantly surprised

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup following his side’s victory over Australia in the World Cup final at Twickenham. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Sport showed best face, with great entertainment on pitch and fantastic organisation of it

Japan players celebrate their momentous victory over South Africa in the pool section – the Brave Blossoms missed out on a place in the quarter-finals but won the hearts of the rugby world. Photograph: Getty Images

‘Irish Times’ team looks back at an eventful tournament and pick their highs and lows

Kieran Read and his captain Richie McCaw raise the William Webb Ellis trophy into the air at Twickenham. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Steve Hansen admits he is likely to step down from post as coach after Lions tour in 2017

Sonny Bill Williams offloads to Ma’a Nonu, who shredded the Australia defence to score New Zealand’s second try of the final. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Richie McCaw’s men leave very best for last in retaining Webb Ellis trophy

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter hold aloft the Webb Ellis Cup after New Zealand’s win over Australia in the World Cup Final at Twickenham. Photograph:      Stu Forster/Getty Images

Wallabies got back to within four points before All Blacks pulled clear at Twickenham

 Michael Cheika arrives for the World Cup semi-final against Argentina at Twickenham. Cheika has led Australia to a first World Cup final in 12 years. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Australia coach sat down with Gerry Thornley to discuss his motivational tactics

All Blacks prepare to perform the Haka before last week’s semi-final victory over South Africa at Twickenham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Once more into the fray for indisputably the best teams at this Rugby World Cup

New Zealand’s Richie McCaw is tackled by Australia’s David Pocock during the 2015 Rugby Championship. Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

Gerry Thornley examines the key areas Australia and New Zealand will do battle

Outhalf Dan Carter, who missed the last final in 2011 through injury, training with Beauden Barrett. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

All Blacks aiming to be first team to retain World Cup with 54th win in 57 matches

Australia’s Adam Ashley Cooper, Scott Fardy, Scott Sio, Israel Folau and Michael Hooper after the press conference at The Lensbury Hotel, Teddington, Middlesex. Photograph: Henry Browne/Livepic/Reuters

Final frontier the only one that really matters to Australia’s driven coach

Scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s dynamic contributions have enabled New Zealand to play with the fast tempo that has become their hallmark. Photograph:   Phil Walter/Getty Images

All Black nine regarded as best in position and has chance to show why against Genia

Nathan Grey, Defence Coach of Australia speaks to the media following an Australia team recovery session in London. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Defence coach has made the Wallabies a formidable defensive proposition

“Games against New Zealand can go all over the shop. Sometimes it opens up, sometimes it closes down,” says Australia assistant coach Stephen Larkham. Photograph:  Peter Cziborra/Reuters

Wallabies must breach a defence that has conceded only four tries in tournament

Australian flanker David Pocock: “I’ve absolutely loved the game of rugby and I’m so grateful for the opportunity that it’s given me.” Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

The Australian backrow forward brings a distinctive passion to all of his various interests

Prop Scott Sio is set to return to Australia’s starting line-up for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand. Photograph: Getty

Stephen Larkham ranks current Australia side above 1999 Rugby World Cup winners

Like all Michael Cheika’s teams, Australia were way too streetwise, together and opportunistic for Argentina. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

New Zealand desperate for win having lost rugby league and cricket finals to neighbours

New Zealand’s hooker Dane Coles has been compared to a young Keith Wood. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

All Black hooker has usurped Mealamu with five tries highlighting ability in open channels

Ben Smith of the All Blacks is spotted by Aaron Smith during a New Zealand training session at London Irish  in Bagshot. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Talk of retiring stars is pushed aside as focus remains on final with Australia

 A bloodied Scott Fardy of Australia feels the pressure during the World Cup semi-final against  Argentina at Twickenham. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Best two sides have chance to make history by winning trophy for third time

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen: “Leadership  . . . is a learning skill. Self-belief is a massive thing.” Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

We just didn’t build enough pressure to get the points, says Springboks coach

Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper scores his second try during the Rugby World Cup semi-final against Argentina at Twickenham. Photograph:  David Davies/PA

David Pocock-inspired Wallabies march on to final meeting against New Zealand

South Africa’s lock Lood de Jager  is tackled Dan Carter, Owen Franks  and New Zealand captain Richie McCaw  during the  Rugby World Cup semi-final a Twickenham. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Plenty of respect between the sides after absorbing encounter at Twickenham

New Zealand perform the haka before the start of the quarter-final against France at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

Mighty New Zealanders’ all-round strength can make difference against the Springboks

Julian Savea collects a high ball during an All Blacks training session: the player had to put in long hours to improve his aerial ability. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

All Black' outstanding winger has the chance to beat his idol Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try-scoring record

Schalk Burger is looking forward to Saturday’s World Cup semi-final against New Zealand, two years on from contracting bacterial meningitis. Photograph: PA

Flanker in a Springbok jersey despite contracting bacterial meningitis two years ago

Daniel Carter passes the ball during a New Zealand training session at London Irish in London. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images United Kingdom. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

All Blacks coach knows last three meetings with the Boks have all been one-score games

“Playing with a lot of the Irish guys,  it’s almost sad for me not to see them in the semi-finals,” said Ruan Pienaar. Photograph: Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images

South Africa scrumhalf says luck deserted Northern Hemisphere sides at tournament

South Africa’s Bismarck du Plessis and Fourie du Preez take part in squad training at the Surrey Sports Park in Guildford. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Springbok coach has enjoyed only one win in seven attempts against All Blacks

There will be no European teams in the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time. Photograph: Inpho

Rugby World Cup quarter-finals showed size of the gulf between the two hemispheres

A disappointed Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip trudges off the pitch at the Millennium Stadium following Ireland’s defeat to Argentina. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Argentina prove too strong in defence and attack for team shorn of its principal leaders

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen celebrates victory against France. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

World Cup quarter-final loss typifies decline with inspiration long gone from French game

Juan Imhoff of Argentina dives over the line to score his team’s fourth try. Photo:  Phil Walter/Getty Images

Quarter-finals yet again prove to be the undoing of Joe Schmidt’s team

Ireland outhalf Jonathan Sexton, who has recovered from a groin strain, during the captain’s run at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Schmidt’s men can dig deep against Pumas and spoil southern hemisphere party

Argentina stand arm in arm before the game against Namibia. “For them to win,” says journalist Alejo Miranda, “I think they have to have an early lead, like they did for example against South Africa in Durban.” Pphotograph: Jason Cairnduff/Inpho

Argentina team are playing brand of rugby that has Maradona cheering in stands

France’s head coach Philippe Saint André (right) speaks with his captain Thierry Dusautoir during a training session at Newport High School ahead of the World Cup quarter-final match against New Zealand. Photograph: Getty.

Philippe Saint-André’s side don’t look like an outfit that can upset world champions

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is expected to start against Argentina. Photo: Getty Images

Joe Schmidt will name his side for Rugby World Cup quarter-final at lunchtime on Friday

Cardiff is ill-equipped to cope with the invasion of rugby fans that will descend on the city this weekend.

The average price recorded for a hotel room on Saturday night is an eye-watering €1,664

Argentina’s Juan Martin Hernández glides through the Georgian defence during the Pool C match at Kingsholm. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

Talented centre revelling in expansive approach of 2015 Argentina team

Ian McKinley in action for Zebre against Scarlets:  “The IRFU will allow me to play if I do not wear the goggles, but they will not permit me to play if I wear this essential piece of protective gear.” Photo: Francesca Soli/Inpho

Ex-Leinster player who lost vision in one eye being denied a full-time contract with Zebre

The great Paul O’Connell. Irish rugby has bade farewell to one of its most iconic and talismanic players of all time. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster legend lacked perfect finale but we can only look back on career with awe

Paul O’Connell celebrates with Peter Stringer after scoring a try on his debut for Ireland against Wales in February 2002. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Glowing tributes paid to Munster legend as he confirms end of international career

 Sean O’Brien in action against France. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

Ireland and Leinster flanker will miss World Cup quarter-final against Argentina on Sunday

Ireland’s captain Paul O’Connell has played his last game for his country. Photograph: The Irish Times

‘Paul O’Connell is a product of the AIL game who was born for the professional game’

Ian Madigan’s body language might appear cocky to some, but it is because he realises a goal-kicking outhalf has to impart that to his team-mates. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt has built not only excellent team but a backroom set-up to match

Rob Kearney of Ireland hands off Frederic Michalak of France at the Millennium Stadium on Sonday. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/ World Rugby via Getty Images

Though sad to lose their captain, Ireland need to focus on moving on, says Kearney

Rory McIlroy with some Irish players on Monday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt maintains he was held off the ball and struck with an open hand

Rory McIlroy with Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Before leaving the Celtic Manor, Rory McIlroy dropped in to give a golfing master class

Ireland’s Rob Kearney goes over for a try during his side’s 24-9 win over France in the pool stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo: Loic Vanance/Getty Images

Schmidt’s men set for quarter-final with Argentina after magnificent display

Rob Kearney crosses to score the opening try for Ireland against France at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Inpho

Rob Kearney and Conor Murray tries set up a maiden World Cup win over Les Bleus

Ireland coach joe Schmidt is expecting a combative encounter against France on Sunday. Photograph: Afp

‘Sometimes, as even Sir Alex Ferguson said, you definitely need a bit of luck’

France warm up for the game against Canada. “The World Cup is really something special in France.  It’s a competition that works well with the French for some reason.” Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters

Freddy Michalak has become a leader and the French pack looks increasingly formidable

Ireland rugby squad training in Newport, Wales. Coach Joe Schmidt believes game against France will be decided on tiniest of margins. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Bare knuckle ride in prospect as crunch pool game against French likely to be attritional

Cian Healy tees off at Celtic Manor in Wales as the Irish squad enjoyed a down day ahead of the World Cup game against FRance on Sunday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Payne, Rob Kearney also likely to start as Schmidt expected to retain tried, trusted

France’s prop Uini Atonio: “I was like ‘I would love to play for France’, but it was never in my mind.” Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images.

New Zealand-born prop likely to provide a huge physical challenge off the bench against Ireland

France have vowed to hunt down Johnny Sexton in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup clash at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Afp

‘It is imperative to go after him, to tire him so that he finds it tough to make the calls’

Jared Payne taking part in Ireland’s squad training session at Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales. Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Kicking coach Richie Murphy confirms both players are fit and ready to face France

Seán O’Brien at the Ireland training camp in Celtic Manor: “It is going to be mentally a different challenge.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

France are ‘a very different team in World Cups’, says Ireland flanker

Mathieu Bastareaud, who looks leaner and fitter, in action against Canada at Stadium MK, Milton Keynes. Photograph: Reuters

Modern side a more practical version of the teams that lit up previous World Cups

Peter O’Mahony’s last-ditch tackle on Italy’s Josh Furno was a crucial moment in Ireland’s one-score victory at the Olympic Stadium in London. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.

Quarter-final place secured but this wasn’t remotely good enough

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw  passes the ball to his centre partner Keith Earls during their Pool D match against Italy at the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images

Keith Earls’ first-half try made him Ireland’s leading ever World Cup try scorer

Michael Cheika still feels strong connection to Leinster, where he spent four years as coach. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Australia coach is proud to be leading a ‘very multicultural team’ at the World Cup

Captain Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony during Ireland squad training at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, Surrey. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt’s side eye quarter-final place but expect the Italians to come out swinging

Robbie Henshaw is in line to make his World Cup debut in the Pool D game against Italy on Sunday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jared Payne and Rob Kearney injuries may force Schmidt to deviate from first-choice XV

 Michael Cheika: “My thoughts weren’t framed by their combination or this game in mind. It was just about what was best for us.” Photo:  Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Coach’s selection against England a repeat of the team that defeated All Blacks in August

Italy fullback Luke McLean: “We realise that we will have to be virtually perfect if we’re to have any chance to come away with a win.” Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

Italy’s naturalised Aussie believes Sergio Parisse’s return can galvanise team

Italy backrow Sergio Parisse takes part in a team training session at Cobham RFC, London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Captain confident of return from injury for Ireland encounter

Cian Healy being put through his paces at the Ireland squad’s training session at Surrey Sports Park, Guidford, Surrey.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Rob Keaney’s injury setback may well mean start for returning Simon Zebo at fullback

Munster speed merchant has found rich vein of form having regained full fitness

Wales coach Warren Gatland shakes hands with Tomas Francis as he leaves the field following his side’s victory over England at Twickenham. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Wales head coach is a specialist in preparing teams for tournaments and one-off games

Keith Earls scores Ireland’s second try during their 44-10 defeat of Romania in their Pool D match at the Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt pays tribute to record crowd at Wembley who are ‘over here helping us’

Wales head coach Warren Gatland: “I think we’ll get a lot of confidence from this win.” Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Stuart Lancaster ‘disappointed’ with England defeat as Australia loom

Keith Earls went over twice for Ireland during their win over Romania at Wembley. Photograph: Afp

Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls both score twice as Joe Schmidt’s side top Pool D

Wales number eight Taulupe Faletau shows the England defence a clean pair of heels at Twickenham. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP photo

Warren Gatland’s men overcome steep odds after England fail to convert superiority

Wales’ Gareth Davies dives in to score his side’s try in the Rugby World Cup Pool A match against England at Twickenham. Photograph:  Andrew Matthews/PA

Gareth Davies’s late try and Dan Biggar’s monster kick complete amazing comeback

 Jamie Roberts: Wales will be depending on him to get them across the gain line.    Photo:  Clive Mason/Getty Images

Victory at Twickenham will prove beyond abilities of Warren Gatland’s patchwork side

Cian Healy and Paul O’Connell taking part in   Ireland’s squad training session at  St George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Henshaw the notable absentee as much-changed XV set for run-out at packed Wembley

Irish fans celebrate after World Cup Pool D victory over Canada at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Photograph: Reuters.

Wembley and the Olympic Stadium more unfamiliar to Irish players than Cardiff

Ireland’s Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald, Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney, Paul O’Connell, Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe enjoying their rest day at Alton Towers, Staffordshire. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

By Sunday, Ireland’s coach expects all 31 players to have seen competitive action

Heyneke Meyer has made eight changes as South Africa look to bounce back from shocking defeat to Japan. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP Photo/ Getty Images

South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer calls on nation to unite as he plots survival route

“Everybody goes through injuries, and it does test your mettle but I was fortunate enough to have fantastic people around me,” says Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster secondrow no longer looks too far ahead or lets stress get the better of him

Johnny Sexton is available for Ireland’s second Rugby World Cup game against Romania at Wembley despite sitting out training on Wednesday. Photograph: Inpho

Henderson and O’Mahony also available while Henshaw a doubt for Wembley clash

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