Ireland owned 2018. 11 wins out of 12 including a Grand Slam and rare win over the All Blacks, Joe Schmidt’s side went into this year's Six Nations as favourites, only to bookend the competition with losses, and a struggle out in Italy slap-bang in the middle of it all. Another struggle against Italy and a drubbing by England in August has put a push for this year’s World Cup under threat, but could their last two wins against Wales show that Ireland are back on the march?
With their win against Wales at the beginning of the month, the Irish rugby team are now ranked number one in the world. Did we ever think we would see the day? Irrespective of how this ranking system works and how it is calculated, this is a serious achievement and one that the IRFU and Joe Schmidt should be incredibly proud of.
There are four major focal points we can focus on that led to this incredible achievement, the first of which focuses on the half-back pairing of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. The Six Nations saw both Murray and Sexton just come back from major long-term injuries, with Murray never quite meeting the standard that he has so consistently set over his time in the No. 9 jersey for Ireland with Sexton being singled out by teams who found another chink in his armour.
The game plan against Sexton for the most part was simple – make him angry – which proved to be quite successful. Despite being 34, Sexton still has the ability to learn, and has clearly brushed aside those issues to come back to his calm, passionate self that approaches games.
This is to prove crucial should Ireland harbour any hopes of making that next step into the last four and beyond. It may also prove prudent to grant game time to the likes of Luke McGrath and either Joey Carbery or Jack Carty, in order to keep the world-class duo fit for the notoriously difficult knockout rounds.
Secondly, the line-outs need to stay at the consistent level they were against Wales which proved to be a major pitfall during the Six Nations – as Ireland consistently lost the ball in the air or overthrowing past the receivers.
The trio of Rory Best and his namesake Scannell seem to have improved during the warm-up games along with Sean Cronin, which is a positive – but even one missed line out can ruin a hooker’s confidence, so the Irish coaching staff need to try and keep morale high.
It’s not all on the hookers although. New line-out caller and former UCD Student James Ryan needs to be at his brilliant best throughout the tournament. The non-inclusion of veteran Devin Toner was a shock to many on the announcement of the 31-man Irish squad, but Toner has aged in recent years and there’s a high possibility that he would become a liability on the pitch thanks to the frequency of games played in the tournament.
With the young Ryan as the new line-out caller, he will be under a lot of pressure to get it right. He was at fault for a few calls against Wales at the Aviva, having the ball thrown into the grateful hands of Alun Wyn Jones on multiple occasions. However, it is hopeful that he can iron out the creases in this part of his game by the time the opening game against Scotland rolls around.
Ireland’s third focal point must be their defensive line. Much like the aforementioned Devin Toner, Ireland’s defence recently has been slowing up in recent times. It allowed teams to pierce through them all through the Six Nations.
But it’s clear from the Welsh games that something has changed. There is a newfound pace about Ireland’s defensive structure, focused around the centre partnership of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw – a partnership bursting with chemistry. If this continues, this could lead them past the quarter-finals for the first time in the nation’s history.
But one more spectre must be dealt with before Ireland can dream of making a Webb Ellis Cup Final – Injuries. It proved to be the downfall during 2015 – with the costly losses of Sexton, Jared Payne and leader Paul O’Connell being decisive. Ian Madigan was forced to take over the duties of an injured Sexton against Argentina, and we all know what happened there.
It’s an aspect that can’t be fully controlled but injury prevention has and will prove to be massive for Schmidt’s final hurrah. In truth, all we can do is hope that the major figures in the squad aren’t taken down by the ghost of disappointing tournaments past.
With just days to go until the start of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, a palpable sense of eager anticipation - tinged with a modicum of justifiable trepidation - is building up steam as the countdown to Ireland's opening match against Scotland in Yokohama gathers momentum.