Rory Best has challenged Ireland to justify their 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam at this year’s World Cup.
The Ireland captain believes Joe Schmidt’s men must seize the “reality check” of turning last term’s Grand Slam into a third-place finish this year.
The 36-year-old hooker insisted Ireland are the hungriest he has seen them under head coach Schmidt, ahead of Saturday’s opening World Cup warm-up match against Italy in Dublin.
“When Joe first came in the big question was ‘how do we perceive ourselves?’, and the big answer was ‘inconsistent’,” said Best.
“And what we’ve worked hard to do is to prepare the same whoever we play and whatever we do.
“That’s how it’s always been under Joe and we certainly won’t go away from that now.
“It sometimes takes a reality check, and finishing third was bitterly disappointing.
“So coming in at the start of this pre-season everyone is as hungry as I have ever seen them.
“We’ve had a group of players that want to prove that the 2019 Six Nations was the blip, not 2018.”
Ireland host Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday to kick-start their build-up to the World Cup in Japan.
Schmidt’s side will launch their World Cup bid by taking on Scotland on September 22, with confidence still riding high among Irish fans of a Best-ever tournament.
Best and company will face Wales twice and England in completing their warm-up matches before jetting out to Japan.
The long-serving Ulster hooker will be 37 by the time the tournament kicks off but admitted feeling as good as ever amid a gruelling pre-season.
Schmidt’s men are once again bidding to move beyond the quarter-finals for first time, but the Irish public have high confidence their side could even lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
New Zealand are seeking a hat-trick of World Cup titles on the run, with Best admitting the All Blacks are still favourites for yet another crown.
But Best also predicted the most open World Cup yet, with Grand Slam champions Wales and a burgeoning England and South Africa also in contention.
Asked if the Irish public confidence adds pressure or belief, Best replied: “It’s probably a bit of extra belief. Our biggest pressure comes internally.
“New Zealand are the Best team in the world and they are the favourites. But I also think this will be one of the most open World Cups.
“Anyone will feel they can beat anyone on their day. And it’s great that Ireland can be one of those teams.
“But we also know that, look at Wales and England in the Six Nations, we can lose to those teams too.”
Best believes Ireland’s maiden two victories over back-to-back world champions New Zealand, in Chicago in 2016 and Dublin in autumn 2018, have offered significant confidence boosts.
“That first victory against New Zealand, in Chicago, it felt like we pushed through a ceiling,” said Best, speaking as a FloGas ambassador.
“But it was hugely important to get the second one, to prove again that we can do it.
“We want to be a team that can prove we can beat anyone and we’ve not just shown it once, we’ve shown it twice now.”
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Italy coach Conor O’Shea cut a forlorn figure in the stands as the Azzurri crashed to another heavy defeat in this year’s Six Nations.
The word coming out of Rome is that his industrious work at grassroots level may come to fruition down the line, but it is unlikely the Irishman will still be at the helm to witness it.
With the prospect of facing both New Zealand and South Africa in the World Cup pool stages, there is little hope of Italy reaching a first quarter-final on their ninth tournament appearance.
The Azzurri, who have slumped to 14th in the world rankings, should finish third in Pool B, if they beat Namibia and Canada.
However, they come into the tournament on the back of a difficult 20 months, which highlighted their diminishing status on the international stage and reviving questions about whether they should be replaced by Georgia in the Six Nations.
O’Shea’s side managed just two wins in 11 games in 2018, a narrow triumph in Japan and a home victory over Georgia, but were otherwise well beaten in all other matches except for a slender three point defeat to Scotland.
In the 2019 Six Nations, they were beaten in all five of their matches, scoring 79 points and conceding 167. In saying that, however, it’s the least number of points they have shipped in a campaign since O’Shea took over as head coach in March 2016.
Their average defeat this year so far is a 33-16 loss, although they only conceded more than 30 points in two matches, against Scotland (33-20) and England (57-14).
That points to a limited attack and creaking defence, with little time to fix things in the warm-up matches before the World Cup.
Their style of play is based on a dominant set-piece, with the pack having been the jewel in their crown for many years now. But if Italy can barely threaten the line and then tire out with the speed of the opposition’s attacking play, then it is only a matter of time before they are opened up in matches.
A couple of younger exciting players like Matteo Minozzi and Braam Steyn, though, should add some firepower during the World Cup, but against the All Blacks and Springboks they are likely to struggle.
While Italy may have only won six out of 33 matches since O’Shea’s arrival, it’s worth looking at club sides Zebre and Benetton to see true signs of rugby’s development in Italy.
The former Irish international was tasked with one of the most difficult jobs in world rugby when he took up the role over three years ago after the Azzurri had finished bottom of the Six Nations again.
And, although many onlookers will point to his paltry 18 per cent win record as a sign of little progress, positive changes are starting to show for the PRO14 sides.
Benetton reached the PRO14 quarter-finals for the first time this year, while Zebre slipped back after winning a club record seven matches in the 2017/18 campaign.
Fresh from their historic run to the league quarters, Benetton account for 50 per cent of the Italian World Cup training squad with 22 call-ups.
Captain Sergio Parisse, who currently plys his trade with Toulon, is in the running for his fifth World Cup tournament while two other veterans, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni, are chasing their fourth appearance.
There are returns for Marco Fuser, Rernato Giammarioli, Marco Lazzaroni and Giosue Zilocchi, while Mattia Bellini, Giovanni Licata, Minozzi, Marcello Violi and Zani return to the squad following injury.
There are also three uncapped players included in scrum-half Callum Braley, hooker Enjiel Makelara and prop Marco Riccioni.
O’Shea’s men face Ireland (August 10), Russia (August 17), France (August 30) and England (September 6) in the build-up to the World Cup.
With signs of progress beginning to show, Italian club rugby is certainly in its most promising place yet. But whether O’Shea sees out another few years in the Italian capital is another story altogether, with a decision to be made later in the year.
After a disappointing Six Nations, two wins from their four matches in the World Cup should have the Azzurri leaving Japan with confidence and knowing that they fulfilled their potential on the grand stage.
Union: Federazione Italiana Rugby
Head coach: Conor O’Shea
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Most caps: Sergio Parisse (134)
Top scorer: Diego Dominguez (983)
Top try scorer: Marcello Cuttitta (25)
Home stadium: Stadio Olimpico
Star man: Sergio Parisse
Best finish: Pool stages (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015)
Fixtures: Namibia (September 22), Canada (September 26), South Africa (October 4), New Zealand (October 12)
DID YOU KNOW?
Italy crashed to a comprehensive 101-0 defeat against South Africa in Durban in June 1999 – their heaviest ever loss.
All Blacks star Brodie Retallick remained in the World Cup frame Sunday after X-rays cleared him of any structural damage to his shoulder injured in the bruising Test against South Africa.
The 28-year-old dislocated his shoulder after being sent flying from a ruck by Springboks replacement forward RG Snyman during the drawn Test in Wellington on Saturday.
Coach Steve Hansen said there was no timeline for Retallick’s return but he was “hopeful he would be available” for the World Cup.
“It’s reasonably positive. He’s only dislocated it. So there is a good possibility he could make the World Cup,” said Hansen.
“He’s one of our best players so we’re relieved. It’s good.”
The All Blacks’ first match in the World Cup is against South Africa on September 21.
The imposing Retallick was a key part of the New Zealand side that won the 2015 World Cup.