Hard to believe four years have elapsed since Ireland’s painful World Cup quarter final exit at the hands of Argentina in Cardiff. As Joe Schmidt enters the twilight of his spectacularly successful reign at the helm of Irish rugby, the next six weeks will shape the epilogue of a brilliant period for Irish rugby.
With a spectacular opening ceremony tonight and the first match of a 48-game program with Ireland’s Pool A opponents Japan and Russia, part of me will take my place in the television commentary bay wondering 'What if?'
If only Ireland had been successful in winning the rights to host the 2023 event, it would have been a wonderful opportunity for our small country to showcase our wares. Alas, the politics that attach to such decisions conspired and it was not to be.
What we have right now is a tournament that will take teams out of their comfort zone, one that will be so culturally diverse to anything encountered in the eight World Cups hosted since the inaugural one in New Zealand and Australia back in 1987 that it will ask different questions.
For most seasoned international players, especially when it comes to the big tournaments, familiarity offers comfort. They have performed at all the major venues many times before, even visualising in advance where they will sit in a dressing room.
Not on this occasion.
For the Irish squad alone, the variety of different stadia, spread across unchartered territory in cities like Shizuoka, Kobe and Fukuoka, will present something different even for the most experienced of players such as captain Rory Best, playing in his fourth tournament. A first-ever World Cup in Asia has the capacity to capture an even wider audience for the game. It will be fascinating.
Another variance is the number of teams who can genuinely be classified as contenders. When the Webb Ellis trophy will be presented at the International Stadium in Yokohama on November 2nd, as many as six national captains will harbour genuine ambitions of being there to accept silverware.
As always the big three from the southern hemisphere, who between them account for seven of the eight World Cups to date, offer a serious case for going all the way again, even if Australia’s case appears far less convincing than that of New Zealand or South Africa.
Rassie Erasmus has done such a good job in his comparatively short time with the Springboks that even New Zealand are seriously worried about them. There’s every chance that these two long-standing traditional rivals will not only face off against each other on the opening weekend of action, but also on the final one.
When the draw was made over a year ago, the prospect of Ireland coming up against South Africa in a quarter-final was received with confidence. By that stage, Ireland had beaten the Springboks 20-26 in South Africa for the first time ever on a memorable afternoon at Newlands in 2016. By November 2017 the gap between the sides had stretched even further with a 38-3 win for Ireland in Dublin one of the highlights of a truly memorable year.
Erasmus has worked wonders and winning the Rugby Championship last month has set them up for a big tournament. It says something for how far they have travelled that the prospect of Ireland meeting New Zealand instead at the quarter-final stage might not be such a bad thing.
New Zealand, of course, wouldn’t exactly be quaking in their boots at that prospect. Despite a dodgy few months that saw them comprehensively beaten by Australia in Brisbane and drawing with the Springboks in Wellington, the holders will still be very difficult to beat.
What separates this World Cup is the strength of the challenge coming from Europe with Wales, Ireland and especially England fancying their chances. When New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina contested the two semi-finals in 2015 in a southern hemisphere shootout, the game in this part fo the world took a bit of a bashing.
There is a strong case to be made for things being different this time out. If that transpires to be the case then the tournament will be all the better for it. England look in rude health and Eddie Jones may just have timed his tenure to perfection. Right now they look best placed of the Six Nations squads to go all the way.
After 12 years at the helm, Warren Gatland has Grand Slam champions Wales exactly where he wants them and having gone so close in 2011 before narrowly losing out in the semi-final to France, when his inspirational captain Sam Warburton was sent off, he will fancy going at least one step further this time out.
Ireland’s form will have to improve appreciably to defeat New Zealand or South Africa in a quarter-final but, crucially, Schmidt’s squad has already experienced that feeling on a number of occasions in this World Cup cycle alone. That separates them from all their predecessors.
If the clinical efficiency of 2018 can be recaptured, this Irish squad has the ability to head into unchartered waters. Making the semi-final would be a massive achievement. If that proves to be the case, anything could happen.