A first for Irish Rugby – leader of the Pack

A first for Irish Rugby - leader of the Pack
Ireland's fly-half Jonathan Sexton (R) celebrates with teammates after scoring Ireland's second try during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and France at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, on March 10, 2019. (Photo by Paul FAITH / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

As the top teams of World Rugby direct all their efforts on the ‘main prize in rugby union’ there is a new leader of the Pack. Irish Rugby stands at number one, and will look to make a challenge for the real World Championship crown.

Real or not, the official World Rugby rankings see the Irish Rugby team hold number one place. It is not by mistake – yet, the timing and practical impact of the elevation is not at a time that most Irish supporters might have expected it. In fact, some believe it was more likely due in November 2018….not as much now.

Back then, they had gained that now famous win over the All Blacks in Dublin. Reigning Six Nations champions then, and dominant. The gap then between the Irish Rugby team and the leading rugby teams was narrow – yet in the rankings, they could not bridge the gap.

Nine months later, they enjoy a first for Irish Rugby. Standing at the top of the standings, and will be seeded number one in Japan. Satisfactory, even though many will continue to acknowledge which team are literally, the top dogs.

Still, as leader of the pack, there are expectations and a sense that victory in Japan would be the ultimate way to underline their current standing.

A first for Irish Rugby – leader of the Pack

How much does it mean to be top seed at a Rugby World Cup? Some might say it is huge. Others might say little, although, those are really only by comparison.

Which teams ranked number one went on to win? England in 2003 are the pre-eminent side. New Zealand in 2015 of course. Australia in 1999, and South Africa in 2007. Those sides had the pre-tournament form to carry them through.

Others have arrived with confidence; Australia in 1991, New Zealand at their second home-tournament in 2011, and while isolated, South Africa went into the 1995 Cup with massive hometown support.

So how does Ireland enter this year’s event?

Their head coach has termed the last few games outcomes as ‘unstable’. Not that they have lost every game but, with a combination of narrow wins over Wales – that combined ledger earned them a first for Irish Rugby – it has been bookended by a less than credible result against England. That might be the reason their head coach is adamant that the ‘ranking’ is not entirely reflective of their status.

Regardless of current rankings, many confident of Irish Rugby fans will undoubtedly see this position as a strength. One that is widely accepted; now or over the last 12 months.

With Joe Schmidt and skipper Rory Best both in their final matches with Ireland (before Schmidt takes time off and Best retires), the successful group will look to build on the winningest period in modern Irish Rugby history.

Joe Schmidt must have a sense of satisfaction; after years of positive action in Irish Rugby. He quelled that slightly, by saying recently, “It’s a nice label to get and it’s a nice first time that we’ve been in that position.

“We have been lucky enough to tick a few firsts off with this group over the last six and a half years, but that label (World No.1) is not going to be relevant to anyone.”

Irish Rugby aiming to Peak for 2019 Rugby World Cup

It will certainly be a factor is the Irish rugby team’s fans eyes. They are proud, and have relatively higher expectations – knowing that this World Cup could be one ‘full of firsts’. And that includes first-time RWC events for some players; James Ryan being one.

The mix of youth and experience is one element that will be an inspired call by Schmidt, if his team can lift highest for the pool matches. Player rotation, and performing in the key matches with Scotland and hosts Japan, will put Ireland in their best position, to play well in the knockout games.

What awaits them in the knockout stages, however, is a multitude of RWC contenders that stand in Irelandโ€™s way; favourites include, England, Wales, and of course the side gunning for their third World Cup in a row, New Zealand.

If you win, you go in one direction. If you lose, you go home!

That honest assessment by an Irish rugby pundit is sure to inspire hope, as well as dread. Even with the memories of an England pasting only a month ago, fans should hold on to their hope. That was built over six years – it has not arrived suddenly.

The world rugby ranking has, and that is a bonus. It will embolden the ‘green army’ of fans who travel, and they will support their team to the hilt. Self-confidence is an ingredient that captain Rory Best, and International Player of the Year Johnny Sexton, can produce.

Produce under fire in Japan, and their future lays in their own hands. Remove any doubts from their minds. Topping their Pool is the key to a first for Ireland. A clear path to go further than any Irish Rugby team has gone before.

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Ireland play in Pool A at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Their first match is against Scotland on Sunday, September 22 in Yokahama.

 

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