The man who guided South Africa to World Cup glory believes Ireland are ready to lift the Webb Ellis Cup this time round.
Jake White, who coached the Springboks to their second crown in 2007 in France, suggests lack of squad depth has prevented Ireland progressing beyond the quarter-final stage at previous tournaments.
But with genuine back-up talent now available to Joe Schmidt, White can see Ireland mounting a serious bid to lift the title in Twickenham.
“I think it shows just how much Irish rugby has progressed. They have never been a force — I’m saying that with respect. They have been fantastic but one of the things they probably struggled with is depth,” said the 52-year old, who is now director of coaching at Montpellier.
“Once they lost two or three players there was a massive difference with what team they could put on the field. But there is no doubt now the guys who are understudies or fighting for places in the World Cup squad, the sort of midweek players as they would have been in the old days, have definitely taken a step up.”
White accepts Ireland’s Pool D prospects will probably come down to a final game shoot-out with France, but argues that overall it is a favourable draw, which Ireland must make the most of.
“I’m not saying they are in an easy pool, but they have an easier pool than some teams.”
White believes Ireland’s rise to second in the world rankings genuinely reflects their tournament prospects.
“To be rated two in the world is a fantastic achievement. It doesn’t matter how you package it, but they are the second best team in the world and they have beaten teams that they have struggled to win against consistently.
“In the World Cup you have got to win seven games in a row and Ireland have shown they have got consistency in their game.
“That’s the question mark over any team — can you win seven games in a row at the World Cup? It has never happened that a team has lost in its pool stage and won the World Cup.”
White, who had been linked to the Irish job before Schmidt was appointed, was keen to highlight the New Zealander’s excellent work in the post.
“There have been a lot of accolades to Joe Schmidt about what he has done with Irish rugby. I think it is fantastic for Irish rugby to have a guy like that settled in the job and there is no doubt he has added massive value.”
Ahead of Ireland’s Test against Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, visiting captain Sam Warburton also recognised the size of the challenge now facing any side lining up against Ireland.
Warburton considers the match ideal preparation as Wales prepare to fight their way out of the World Cup’s so-called ‘Group of Death’ against England, Australia and newly-crowned Pacific Nations champions Fiji.
“It would be great for us to get a win on Saturday against Ireland. Getting a win in Dublin will take as much as it will for us when we go to Twickenham and getting a win against England and Australia,” said Warburton.
“We are out of our comfort zone and going away from the Millennium Stadium to Dublin will be a great challenge and good marker going into the World Cup.”
Mike Phillips, Richard Hibbard and James Hook were all cut from the Welsh squad after the home loss to Ireland three weeks ago.
Now the fate of several other players will rest on Saturday’s game, before coach Warren Gatland names his 31 players for the World Cup on Monday.
“Everybody in the squad wants to play against Ireland because it’s the last chance before the final cut for the World Cup.” said Warburton.
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