2019 Rugby World Cup
- When: 20 September to 2 November
- Where: 12 locations across Japan
- Teams: 20
- Number of matches: 48
- UK TV channel: live on ITV
It’s one of the curiosities of the world rankings that Ireland are top seeds going into the Rugby World Cup despite suffering a worrying dip in form this year.
Comprehensively dismantled by England and Wales in the Six Nations, the Irish then leaked a record 50 points to the English at Twickenham last month.
A warm-up game, for sure, but nonetheless the way in which England – also, one shouldn’t forget, in preparatory stage – ran Ireland’s defence ragged in the 57-15 thrashing has given cause for deep concern.
Yet back-to-back wins subsequently against Wales have lifted Ireland to world No.1, an unprecedented mantle for Joe Schmidt’s team.
That position has long been occupied by New Zealand, and the Kiwi media has rather looked down their collective nose at Ireland’s lofty position in the rugby hierarchy.
“Ireland should have gone into this tournament on a high, following a great couple of seasons, but they are skidding into Japan,” wrote Chris Rattue in the New Zealand Herald.
“Too many of their best players – including Johnny Sexton – are below top form, and like Wales they are a much tougher proposition at home.”
It’s tough to argue with that statement. Last year the Irish deserved to be thought of as the world’s premier team. They won the 2018 Six Nations, in the process clinching only the third grand slam in their history, and then beat New Zealand 16-9 in Dublin, their first triumph against the All Blacks on Irish soil.
But have they peaked too soon? If the World Cup had been held last autumn they might well have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup but the fear in Ireland is that Rattue is right, and too many of their trial players – fly-half Sexton and scrum-half Connor Murray, in particular – are jaded.
Others – like hooker Rory Best, full-back Rob Kearney, wing Keith Earls and prop Cian Healy – are all the wrong side of 30 and starting to look their age.
Sexton has been wrapped in cotton wool in recent months by head coach Schmidt in order to protect his battered body.
In many ways it’s a wonder that the legend of Leinster is still able to play the game given the number of head and upper body hits he has absorbed over the years.
Ireland desperately need him to stay fit in their to have any chance of being crowned champions in Japan.
Sexton’s only appearance in the summer was in Ireland’s final loosener against Wales, which they won 19-10, but he believes that Ireland’s inconsistent form this year isn’t indicative of a deeper malaise.
“It’s all going to be judged in a few months’ time,” he said recently, in a question to Ireland’s thrashing at Twickenham.
“It was probably the end of England’s preparation but it was only the start of ours. But we also refer to all the good times over the last few years that can sometimes get forgotten with a defeat like that.
“We take great confidence in what we have achieved and we often refer back to that, so it’s a case of balancing things out.
“It’s important to keep building and not listen to too much about what’s being said outside our environment.”
Ireland RWC fixtures and squad
Pool A: Japan, Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Samoa
All times below are UK and matches are live on ITV.
- 20 September: Japan vs. Russia (11.45am; Tokyo Stadium, Tokyo)
- 22 September: Ireland vs. Scotland (8.45am; International Stadium, Yokohama)
- 24 September: Russia vs. Samoa (11.15am; Kumagaya Rugby Grounds, Kumagaya)
- 28 September: Japan vs. Ireland (8.15am; Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka)
- 30 September: Scotland vs. Samoa (11.15am; Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe)
- 3 October: Ireland vs. Russia (11.15am; Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe)
- 5 October: Japan vs. Samoa (11.30am; City of Toyota Stadium, Aichi)
- 9 October: Scotland vs. Russia (8.15am; Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka)
- 12 October: Ireland vs. Samoa (11.45am; Hakatanomori Football Stadium, Fukuoka)
- 13 October: Japan vs. Scotland (11.45am; International Stadium, Yokohama)
- Head coach: Joe Schmidt
- Forwards: CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Rory Best (captain), Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan
- Backs: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Conor Murray, Luke McGrath