The Six Nations may be just 10 days away, but the World Cup in Japan this autumn looms large on the Irish rugby landscape.
Joe Schmidt will be working his troops hard in the Algarve with an eye to the visit of England next week, but deep down his thoughts are on Yokohama and the opening game against Scotland on September 22.
Previous Ireland teams — ‘golden generations’ or not — have travelled to World Cups with plenty of optimism, but no side will have looked at the Webb Ellis trophy with such realistic hopes of taking it home as the current crop.
Last year’s Grand Slam, the Test Series victory in Australia, and a November win over New Zealand in Dublin formed a calendar year of unprecedented success, and saw Ireland end the season as the world’s second-ranked side.
They could move up to first in the next two months if results go their way, but with such success comes pressure — no matter the personnel involved.
“The biggest caution we have to have is that if we have a half-decent Six Nations, we’re going to go in there with very high expectations — balancing the mental edge is probably going to be Joe’s biggest challenge running into the World Cup,” said former Ireland and Lions hooker Shane Byrne.
But my worry is that this is going to be one of the most difficult Six Nations in many a year. England are starting to find their mojo again, Scotland are still going steady and Wales have won eight games on the trot. It used to be that when we had England and France at home we could do something — but those away games are going to be so, so hard this year.
“You’ve got to think that Ireland have the depth now, it’s absolutely outrageous, and there’s no reason why we can’t go into the Six Nations with high hopes.”
Ireland have England and France at home, typically the easier draw, but nothing will come easy for a side with a target on their back — while others focus on building their teams for Japan.
“We had an absolutely phenomenal 2018, but to assume it’d be the same this year is very optimistic,” said Malcolm O’Kelly, a veteran of three World Cups. “But we’re a good side, we’ll have a lot of success, there’s no doubt about it.
“We’ve England first in the Six Nations, which could be a brilliant thing or a terrible thing. England will be buoyed from their last few games, they’ll go in with confidence, as will we. It could be the start of something, or a very quick scenario where we have to recover.”
O’Kelly is wary of how sides like Japan — also in Ireland’s Pool — can benefit from having a few months together just before the World Cup and deliver the kind of shock that saw them beat South Africa in England last time out.
But the depth of talent available to Schmidt is unprecedented, filling O’Kelly with confidence they could go all the way.
“A World Cup is very difficult to come out on top, only one team can do that, and previously it’s the teams that are very physical and very powerful, there can be a lot of collateral damage — you require a big squad,” he said.
“What’s great about the Irish situation is Joe’s been there before and fell foul of that, so I would definitely be optimistic regarding depth.
“At the moment, Ireland are doing everything right. I’d be very optimistic about what they could achieve. If you get to a semi-final, what’s to stop you getting to a final?”
Meanwhile, England boss Eddie Jones has added Bath centre Jonathan Joseph to his squad ahead of next week’s Six Nations opener against Ireland. Joseph will be part of a 36-player group that departs for a training camp in Portugal today.