Pool A: Ireland have enough credit in the bank to be optimistic
Joe Schmidt will be hoping injuries are kind are he bids to depart on a high in Japan
Joe Schmidt’s golden Ireland tenure ends after the Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Who are they
Defeats to England and Wales in the recent Six Nations have moderated expectations slightly ahead of the Rugby World Cup. It was the manner of the defeats rather than the losses themselves that raised a few eyebrows but there is way too much credit in the bank to start being skittish. Given a reasonable injury profile through the warm-up matches, Joe Schmidt’s side will travel to Japan in expectation rather than hope, justified in their optimism in a squad that contains enough quality to eclipse previous achievements.
Joe Schmidt comfortably possesses the best winning record of any Ireland coach leading the country to three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam and two victories over New Zealand, a feat that hadn’t been previously achieved by the senior national side. The injuries that Ireland suffered in the World Cup four years ago prior to the quarter-final defeat to Argentina were hugely debilitating and he’ll be keeping his fingers crossed for a little bit more luck in that respect. He steps down after the tournament and would dearly love to add one more milestone to a brilliant time in charge.
Rory Best, who has played 117 times for Ireland, starting 96 Test matches and scoring 10 tries, will retire after the World Cup, having celebrated his 37th birthday in August. He made his debut in November 2005 against New Zealand and took over the captaincy of the national team from Paul O’Connell; he has led Ireland on 32 occasions including two victories over the All Blacks, a Grand Slam - he was a member of the Ireland squad for another in 2009 - and has been an outstanding servant for Ulster and Ireland, while also touring with the Lions.
The one to watch
Jacob Stockdale has been a try scoring phenomenon since making his debut for Ireland against the USA on a summer tour in 2017. He has won 19 caps and scored 14 tries including getting the all important try in Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks at Lansdowne Road. He scored seven tries in the 2018 Grand Slam winning campaign. Although he has played all his matches on the wing he may eventually revert to fullback where he was outstanding for an Ireland side that reached the Under-20 World Cup final. He has the physical presence and the kicking game to thrive there.
Their RWC moment
The closest Ireland came to a place in the semi-finals was in 1991, Gordon Hamilton’s try nudging Ireland ahead at Lansdowne with just minutes remaining against the eventual world champions. Michael Lynagh’s late try gave the Wallabies victory.
Best RWC finish
Quarter-finalists: 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011, 2015
If they can beat Scotland in the opening match and see off hosts Japan, then they should be able to accelerate to a quarter-final place where they are likely to face South Africa. If Ireland finish runners-up then New Zealand are likely to await them. Injuries denied them a decent crack at the last four in 2015 and if they can avoid similar misfortune they then can break that glass ceiling as a minimum.