It is still just a little tempting to wonder whether Ireland are as good as they think they are, but the evidence is beginning to stack up in their favour.
They won the Six Nations in 2014 and defended it in March; they have a super-smart coach in Joe Schmidt; they have won 12 of their past 13 internationals. Oh yes, one other thing: they are now second in the world rankings, behind the All Blacks.
Throw in the additional fact they have been drawn in one of the more benign World Cup pools – Canada and Romania will pose little in the way of a threat; they could beat a fast-declining Italy in their sleep; they know as much about France as the French know about themselves and possibly more – and there you have it: a team who can be forgiven for thinking that this might be their moment.
They certainly showed some swagger in winning 35-21 in Cardiff, albeit against a Wales team half-baked at best.
Jamie Heaslip, a No 8 who looks like Kieran Read and Sergio Parisse combined when granted the freedoms he enjoyed at the Millennium Stadium, dominated a one-sided first half so completely, it was a miracle that the centre Keith Earls and the full-back Felix Jones made the impact they did.
It was only when Toby Faletau, who eased Heaslip out of the Lions Test team in Australia two years ago, emerged from the bench that the Leinsterman’s style was in any way cramped.
Heaslip was keen to deflect attention from himself by talking up some of those he had spent the afternoon leading. There were, quite rightly, mentions for his back-row partners Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell; the latter was particularly impressive in all departments and the Irish must be hoping against hope that the hip injury he suffered late in the game turns out to be less serious than initially feared. As for Donnacha Ryan’s performance on his return from the treatment room, the skipper nodded enthusiastically as Schmidt highlighted the Munster lock’s no-nonsense contribution at close quarters.
The contrast with Wales is striking: instead of drawing together a supporting group of second-stringers from a position of acute weakness, Ireland will be doing it from a place of considerable strength. Murphy, O’Donnell, Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O,Brien, Chris Henry – somewhere in the back row, someone is going to be left hurting. Ryan, Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy? Something will have to give.
“They won’t be great conversations to have,” acknowledged Schmidt as he looked ahead to the inevitable breaking of bad news, “and it wouldn’t be my favourite part of the job, by a long shot. But it’s the position we want to be in. We don’t want things to be clear and obvious because people aren’t performing.”
As is his wont, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, was in no hurry to lavish praise on rivals he once coached – a job he left in circumstances a long way short of agreeable. “They didn’t surprise us,” he remarked. “They have a template that works for them: they get into your 22, they play one-pass rugby, they’re good at keeping possession.”
Unfortunately for those home supporters who filled the stadium in the hope of seeing a batch of fringe candidates audition strongly for a place in the main cast, Wales did not have the first idea how to deal with the visitors, however unsurprising their approach may have been. Only one set of players met expectations on Saturday, and they weren’t wearing red.Reuse content