Had the Rugby World Cup come 12 months, Ireland would be heading to the tournament as the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
But a lot can happen in the space of one year, and instead Joe Schmidt’s men now find themselves with a question mark over their heads for Japan 2019.
After storming to victory at the 2018 Six Nations, followed by that historic win over New Zealand, Ireland struggled to maintain their form and intensity on the international stage.
They were twice beaten by England this year – including that record defeat at Twickenham – and although back-to-back wins over Wales in the summer restored some confidence, the Irish look to have lost their edge.
Still, the side has made considerable gains under Schmidt since he took over in 2013 and hopes remain high that Ireland will make it beyond the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in the nation’s history.
They’ve been drawn in Pool A alongside Scotland, hosts Japan, Russia and Samoa.
Forwards: CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Rory Best (captain), Niall Scannell, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter, Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan
Backs: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Conor Murray, Luke McGrath
Joe Schmidt. Under the Kiwi, Ireland have scaled new heights in the international game. A legacy-defining World Cup campaign is all that is missing from the head coach’s CV before he steps down from his role in November.
Jonny Sexton. The fly-half has endured a difficult 2019 while injury hampered his preparations for the World Cup during the summer warm-ups. At 34, it’s been suggested the Irishman’s powers are waning. The question, then, for Irish fans will be whether Sexton can reach his previous heights and deliver for the national side. If he does, Ireland can expect an encouraging run in Japan.
How will Sexton fare in Japan? (REUTERS)
Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the competition
Despite their evolution into one of the game’s best sides, it feels like Ireland have got their timings all wrong for Japan 2019 and peaked too early. As such, I feel their World Cup campaign will once again come to an end in the last eight.
Ireland to win the Rugby World Cup: 9/1