By Phil Rice
As the Irish rugby public digest the outstanding achievements of Joe Schmidt’s heroes, the question many are daring to ask is, have Ireland a realistic chance of winning the World Cup in 2019?
This ambition has to be viewed in the light of a succession of crushing disappointments at every World Cup to date. Unbelievably Ireland have never gone further than the quarter-final stage.
However, it is fair to say that no Irish team has ever been as well prepared for combat as Schmidt’s current crop. Schmidt’s attention to detail and ability to transmit his plans and strategies to his team is quite remarkable.
For five years the likeable New Zealander has lived and breathed Irish rugby and the entire country owes him a great debt of gratitude for elevating the sport in Ireland to unprecedented levels.
The Irish people love their sport and are among the most committed supporters of their national sportsmen and women, regardless of their sport.
Schmidt and his players have brought a pride to Irish rugby that is clearly palpable as the faithful who attended last Saturday’s performance at Twickenham gave testament.
The opposing teams in the Six Nations demonstrated their respect for Ireland as they each accepted their defeat was by a better team.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Saturday’s win was the fact that Ireland finished the game with a back division that included, Jacob Stockdale 21 years of age, Jordan Larmour 20, Joey Carbery 22, and the elder statesman of the four Garry Ringrose at 24.
None of these players looked out of place, quite the reverse. All four of them strode the pitch like accomplished veterans. In addition, the forwards included James Ryan 21, Andrew Porter 22 and Dan Leavy 23.
This is a young Irish team that will only get better. Of the starting XV only Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy are over 30.
The balance between experience and youth is perfect and with the over 30s likely to continue until the World Cup the squad can only get stronger, injuries permitting.
When Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009, a far greater proportion of the team were aged over 30 and there were no players under 23.
That is one reason why Ireland can look forward to 2019 with far greater optimism than the squad that went to the 2011 World Cup.
The other inescapable fact is that this Irish side are a far more complete team than their counterparts in 2009. That team depended very heavily on the brilliance of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.
Schmidt has built a squad that has an unprecedented depth of talent. Every position is covered by at least one quality replacement, as we witnessed when four outside centres incurred injuries during the Six Nations, and they were seamlessly replaced by quality alternatives.
Saturday’s victory over England was comprehensive. The hosts had entered the Six Nations not only as favourites but with a confident belief that they had a very good chance of winning the World Cup in 2019.
That belief lies in tatters as they languish in fifth position in the table. Before Ireland get carried away they should remember how quickly fortunes can change in this game.
But you get the impression that the structure that Schmidt has built, and continues to build, is made of more robust substance than the one constructed by the combative Eddie Jones.
Wales (second) and Scotland (third), will look back on their campaigns with some comfort as they both made progress towards 2019. Scotland’s performances were a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg, but they are building a strong side with some outstanding strike runners.
One needs to remember that Scotland are in Ireland’s World Cup pool, with the second qualifier from that pool almost certainly going on to meet New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Ireland will monitor Scotland’s steady progress with concern.
As it stands, Ireland are one of the few teams that New Zealand will be giving close attention to, knowing that Schmidt’s team have the firepower and self-belief to beat them on their day.
It is an exciting time to be an Irish rugby supporter and the nation has risen as one to embrace these dedicated and humble players, directed by the humblest of them all and yet the most revered coach in world rugby.
Pick up a copy of this week’s Irish World and find out who made Phil Rice’s Team of the Six Nations.