The time has come for Ireland rugby to believe the hype and go to Japan this year confident they can and will win the World Cup.
That is the considered view of South African legend Bryan Habana, who claims there is no side better placed than Joe Schmidt’s men to upset favourites New Zealand.
Habana, 35, speaks from a position of strength, having been Player of the Year when helping his country win the title in 2007.
He also tied Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try record when he touched down for the 15th time during the 2015 finals.
The All Blacks start favourites to win a third consecutive crown, but Habana says they would be wise to be wary of the men in green.
“They are so good now there will be some expectation and that delivers another level of pressure, but they have shown they can cope with that,” said Habana. “The players have to ignore the messages about never having been beyond the quarter-finals and lacking the experience of World Cup semis and finals. I think they will be able to do that because a lot of their players have done it all in terms of the European Champions Cup and PRO14.
“Leading into this year, Ireland were the best team in the world in my opinion, given the 18-month run they had. Also look at the structures they have put in place, both on a club and international level. Leinster winning the double last year was absolutely exceptional. Ireland are possibly the one team that have got New Zealand’s number, so that will only help if they meet again in Japan.”
A Six Nations home defeat by England should not deter Ireland from their ambition, as Habana believes they can use the shock result to their advantage.
“That England game served as a bit of a magnifying moment in terms of examining their progress. I think that defeat is a blessing in disguise, as it gave them a chance for reassessment across the board, from Joe Schmidt down to the second tier of players, who might get an opportunity in Japan.
“I think the structure in Ireland under Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora is excellent. They have put structures in place which have been successful on a club and national level and, with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray coming back from injuries, it could also be a blessing in disguise, in that they can be eased to peak level for the World Cup.”
The key factors behind any possible Ireland success will be keeping key players fit, getting the whole squad to peak in Japan this September and getting what Habana describes as the team’s leadership group to do their job.
Habana, speaking at the Laureus World Sport Awards in Monaco, retired last year at the end of a five-year stint with Toulon.
He added: “Ireland’s leadership group is unbelievably strong and, even if Best, Murray or Sexton get injured they have Peter O’Mahony to step up and take the leadership role, given that he did that for the Lions in 2017.
“There is pressure on them to succeed, but successful professional rugby players thrive on pressure and we have seen how Johnny Sexton progressed over the last few years to rightly be named World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018.
“I think a lot of those Irish guys who will be expected to start have already shown they can live up to the pressure of the last 18 months. A question mark might be how they will cope with injuries, but I am sure Joe Schmidt has already taken that into consideration in his planning.
“Coaches these days go into the four-year World Cup cycle with an intricate planning and training programme.
“They also have to be adjustable in that period. Look at Eddie Jones and England. He started off remarkably well and then went through a poor lull and now we are seeing World-Cup-winning abilities from his side again.
“To win it you want your best 30 available players. It is not just about 15 players winning a World Cup, because you need your best 30 players available for that eight-week period. Then, it is down to the players to keep faith with the process and all to know what direction the team is going and what their responsibilities are if and when they are called upon.”