Ireland have earned the right to be respected as genuine World Cup contenders.
Why this matters
In eight World Cups Ireland has reached the knokout stage six times. But they have stumbled at the quarter-final each time.
In 2019 they go into the tournament as the bookies’ second favourites.
Having never won against the All Blacks in 28 attempts, Ireland finally won in 2016 in Chicago, and showed that was no fluke by winning in Dublin in 2018.
They are Number 2 in the world rugby rankings, have some players of genius, a squad with real depth and character, and a superlative coach in Joe Schmidt.
An All Blacks-Ireland final would be a thing of rare beauty.
And yet, and yet.
By winning so well over the last few years they have not only slayed the demons of the past, they have entered new territory where other demons lie in wait.
The demon of expectations.
The demon of being the hunted, rather than the hunter.
The demon of pressure.
These are the demons the All Blacks travel with at every World Cup. They have learned the hard way that being the best before the Cup matters for nought. They had to rid themselves of too many clever ideas about managing their way to victory, rather than getting their heads into the hard graft.
It will be absolutely fascinating to see how the Irish rise to the challenge. I hope they do.
Joe Schmidt became Irish coach in 2013, and has announced he will step down at the conclusion of RWC2019.
His record so far is played 62, won 46, drawn 1, lost 15 for a 74.2% winning record. That includes three Six Nations Cups (2014, 2015 and 2018).
He was born in Kawakawa, grew up in Woodville, and played 29 matches for Manawatu.
The truly beautiful thing about Irish rugby is that its players represent the island of Ireland (that is, both the Republic and Northern Ireland).