Optimism, belief and confidence are not feelings you immediately presume course through the veins of northern hemisphere teams approaching a World Cup, but Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll is adamant the Men in Green head into this year’s spectacle expecting victory.
And in truth, why would they not head to Japan with spirits sky-high?
There is certainly a swagger in their stride after counting two wins over international rugby’s juggernauts New Zealand in the last two years among their results – in addition to three Six Nations titles in the last five years, one of which yielded the Grand Slam.
They are in the midst of a record 12-game winning run at home – the 11th of which was that 16-9 triumph against the world champion All Blacks during the autumn internationals at the tail end of 2018.
A little over a year ago, it was England – amid a charge under new coach Eddie Jones – being primed as the best-equipped northern hemisphere side to topple the dominance of the mighty All Blacks.
In March 2017 the Red Rose were blossoming under their new boss – their 2015 World Cup debacle all but forgotten as they equalled the run of 18 straight victories by a tier one nation (set by New Zealand, of course).
But Ireland stormed from being the third best team in the world in January 2018 to second by November, just a point in the rankings behind the All Blacks.
Despite their tremendous form, the Irish do not have form on the game’s grandest stage.
They have never even played a semi-final previously – eliminated at the quarter-finals in seven of the eight editions of the tournament. Yet O’Driscoll says a last-four spot will not be enough judging on current form.
“I don’t think this team thinks about getting to a World Cup semi-final like no other team has ever achieved. That’s not the focus anymore, it’s about going and winning it. Actually win the World Cup,” said the legendary Ireland centre – his nation’s most capped player (133) and highest tryscorer (46).
“They’ll have to do it the hard way. The pool looks like it isn’t the most difficult with Scotland the hardest game. But then in the quarter-final you’ve got New Zealand or South Africa, a multitude of semi-finalists, Wales or Australia.
“Wales have been a bogey team and enjoy playing against Ireland, they’ll feel they can score points, so it’s far from a done deal.
“Then, possibly New Zealand in the final. There’s so many ifs, buts and maybes, but Ireland, what they are controlling is their own performance and making themselves very difficult to beat.”
Apart from their scintillating form, and the enormous self-belief that will no doubt generate heading into the tournament – the World Cup kicks-off in Tokyo on September 20 – the awesome depth chart outgoing coach Joe Schmidt has cultivated has transformed Ireland into a menacing force.
After the 2015 World Cup – the Irish were humbled by a 43-20 defeat to Argentina in the quarters – Schmidt made it his mission to develop Ireland’s depth, looking to be ‘three-deep’ in every position.
Their starting XI, on paper and on the pitch, is lethal and key figures like half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will have huge roles to play if Ireland are to claim the Webb Ellis Trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun.
But the fact that a troublesome 12 months for lynchpin Murray with injuries is almost negated by the strength at scrum-half behind him – Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are far more than just bright back-ups – leaves them looking formidable, even though O’Driscoll remains cautious, espeically with the Six Nations on the horizon.
“They’ve been a coming team for a while now, and it’s their consistency that Irish teams in the past probably struggled with,” said the 39-year-old, who went on four tours with the British & Irish Lions between 2001 and 2013.
“On your bad day it’s 7 out of 10 and on your good day it’s a 9.5 out of 10. They’ve realised recently they don’t always have to be fully on their game to deliver and score points.
“Defensively they’ve been incredible. They’re the best defensive team in world rugby, the best drilled team, there’s an understanding.
“At this moment they’re in great shape but 9-10 months can be a long time depending on what happens. There’s still one or two individuals we can’t afford to lose but on the whole we’re in very good shape.”
The Irish success and defeats of the All Blacks have been masterminded by none other than their messiah-like coach Schmidt – although the former schoolteacher will ring the bell on his Ireland tenure after the World Cup and return to his homeland.
And O’Driscoll feels becoming only the second non-southern hemisphere heavyweight to taste victory on the grandest stage after England 16 years ago would be a fitting end to the Kiwi’s era.
“I think these players who’ve not known any other coach will realise what a phenomenal asset he’s been to Irish rugby,” added ex- Leinster stalwart O’Driscoll, talking to Sport360 as an HSBC ambassador at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last month.
“Jonny’s (Sexton) older but the guys in their late 20s who’ve come through Leinster where he was for three years and won the Heineken Cup, the Sean O’Brien’s of the world, then going into Ireland for five years and winning three Six Nations, a Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks twice, beating every tier one nation in 18 months.
“That’s not ever been done, anything close to it in Irish rugby, so needless to say he’s pretty revered around the country. People are disappointed he’s going but understand. There was a sense he was going so we’re not shocked by the decision.”
Asked if Schmidt’s impeding departure means it’s a case of now or never for Ireland at the World Cup, O’Driscoll added: “We always used to say about New Zealand the best time to beat them is the next time you play them. And the World Cup is the next time we’ll get a chance.”
And while countless Irish fans will lament Schmidt leaving, O’Driscoll believes replacement Andy Farrell – Schmidt’s defence coach for the last two years – has the pedigree required to be a success.
“I was in camp with him for the Lions and was very impressed with him back then,” he said of the former dual code England international, who’s been instrumental in Ireland’s rise.
“I know him, he’s very well spoken, delivers messages brilliantly, has got his defence firing, he’s an ambitious coach so he has all the hallmarks to be a good coach, no doubt.
“I’ve only heard good things from the lads. They were excited being coached by him in 2013 (with the Lions) and when that opportunity arose in 2016 again for him to come into the Irish set-up, they jumped at it.
“He seems to have the template to beat New Zealand in his defensive systems. Four times in the last five-six years and a draw (with the Lions and England), not many have that on their CV.”
When UAE rugby fans turn on their television sets and tune into the Rugby World Cup next year, there may well be a face they recognise staring back at them.
Former dual code New Zealand and England international Henry Paul left his post as Jebel Ali Dragons head coach in January to work once again alongside former Wales flanker Kingsley Jones who is in charge of Canada.
The pair had previously worked together with Russia from 2011-14 and Jones approached his friend earlier this year to help him at the America’s Rugby Championship (ARC).
Suitably impressed with his input, as well as perhaps by Paul leading the Dragons to their first trophy in four years with last season’s West Asia Premiership triumph, the 44-year-old left to become Jones’ assistant full-time in May.
And Canada secured the final place at next year’s World Cup in Japan after beating Hong Kong 27-10 in their repechage tournament on Saturday morning.
Hong Kong needed a bonus-point win and to deny their opponents anything from the game if they were to advance. But Glasgow Warriors winger DTH van der Merwe scored two tries while 38-year-old hooker Ray Barkwill also crossed the line.
Gordon McRorie added three conversions and two penalties to earn the Canucks an appearance at a ninth consecutive World Cup.
They will now go into Pool B for the tournament alongside defending champions New Zealand, two-time winners South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
Dragons chairman Stuart Quinn is predicting a raft of club members might well not be looking at flights and accommodation in Japan in a bid to support their former coach, who will eye the host nation’s epic victory over the Springboks in 2015 as inspiration for the Canucks.
“We’re obviously immensely proud of his achievement,” said Dragons chairman Quinn.
“Next is to try and get a win if possible in a tough group. Pulling a Japan would be awesome.”
The qualification process for lower tier nations, which began in St Vincent and the Grenadines in March 2016, has involved 188 matches across 994 days with 10,355 points scored in total by the 71 teams. All the teams began with a dream of playing in Japan, but only the USA, Uruguay, Russia, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Namibia and now Canada were able to secure qualification.
“He’s missed hugely by all of us at the Dragons but we felt we couldn’t hold him back any longer,” said a grateful Quinn.
“He was destined for more. We’re just glad he’s topped a West Asia Premiership success with qualification to the biggest stage. A few of the boys are going to head out and support him next year, while some may even be digging around for Canadian grandparents.”
Schalk Brits has admitted he came out of retirement to chase his World Cup dream and end his rugby career with no regrets.
Evergreen hooker Brits brought down the curtain on nine glittering years with Saracens in the summer, and with it his 11-cap South Africa stint.
But the 37-year-old has since been coaxed into making a big U-turn, and could now even take on England at Twickenham on Saturday.
Brits has delayed his plans to combine university study with a move into the business world to chase selection for next year’s World Cup in Japan, and thanked those who have helped make that possible.
“Firstly it was a short-term return; I thought my studies would start in September, then work in August, and June was one month off,” said Brits.
“I went on holiday with my wife to Ibiza anyway, we had chill-out time and that was a bit of a sabbatical so I thought, ‘why not join the Boks for three weeks?’
The Springboks arrived in two groups in London. The second, bigger group arrived at their Kensington hotel a few minutes ago. #CastleLagerOutgoingTour@MTNza @ASICS_ZA #LoveRugby pic.twitter.com/WOffX1FggX— South African Rugby (@Springboks) 28 October 2018
“Then the discussions followed and six months later we only have eight months left (until the World Cup).
“From a studying point of view to do it when I’m 37 or 38 there’s not much difference. The guy that’s offered me a job said, ‘what’s the difference between 37 and 38?’.
“He said, ‘you regret the things you don’t do’. And that’s certainly one of those things that fits.
“And with (South Africa boss) Rassie Erasmus’ blessing and the way he wants to try to keep me involved, it has made it quite an easy fit.
“There’s a big potential for this side, I think we’re growing at a rapid pace.
“When we started in June we didn’t have a lot of caps and I’m surprised how it’s gone.
“And I think we can improve even more from where we are now.”
Malcolm Marx is likely to start at hooker against England on Saturday, leaving Brits potentially battling it out for a seat on the bench.
The ever-likeable Brits moved quickly to lay high praise at Marx’s feet, warning England to expect a tough battle against the Lions’ gritty front-rower.
“Not only is he a great player he’s a great team guy, and he adds value on and off the pitch,” said Brits of Marx.
“Everybody can see what he does on the pitch, but off it he’s immensely important to how our team functions.
“Physically he’s gifted: a big, strong and quick bloke. But his strongest attribute is his mindset.
“He’s got a spirit of learning and growing, and if you can have that you can always improve as a player.
“He makes one of the highest amounts of turnovers in our team, so to have that kind of player making that amount of turnovers, that says something about his capability around the ruck.
“He’s given all teams from Super (Rugby) level to international level a headache.
“I’ve always said from when I started playing rugby that your hooker can be your extra loose forward.
“If you’ve got a hooker on the blindside that can slow down the game and steal the ball, that’s tough to play against.
“Nobody wants to play with slow ball, it’s always quick ball, and that’s why I think the role of the hooker has changed in the last 15 years.”