Q&A: Can Ireland win the World Cup?
IRELAND have scooped their third Six Nations Grand Slam, beaten Australia in a Test series Down Under and toppled New Zealand for the first time in Dublin - all this year.
Here, Nick Purewal, examines whether they are World Cup winners in waiting.
Can Ireland handle expectations?
New Zealand retained their world No 1 ranking despite Saturday's defeat, leaving Ireland in second place. All Blacks boss Steve Hansen had insisted before the encounter that the winner would earn the right to call themselves the best team in the world. And after the match he stuck to his word, and anointed Ireland as the world's top Test side. He also touted Joe Schmidt's men as World Cup favourites, then challenged them to cope with the pressure. New Zealand have been world No 1 for nine years, so he knows exactly what that pressure feels like. Schmidt laughed off all that talk as kidology from his Kiwi counterpart though. Doubtless being top of the pile will be a new experience for Ireland, but Schmidt has not let anyone lose their head yet.
Do Ireland have the firepower to land a maiden World Cup title?
Simply put, yes. Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are all genuine world-class superstars. Young lock prodigy James Ryan already looks like a 40-Test veteran after just 13 caps. Peter O'Mahony bangs the drum on Ireland's warrior spirit and could so easily captain the side if required. Seán O'Brien strikes fear into even the All Blacks, and head coach Schmidt's exacting game plan and masterful coaching means anyone who steps into the side is drilled to within an inch of their life on his unique methodology.
But what about their depth?
Granted, Ireland ran out of frontline match-winning talents in their quarter-final defeat to Argentina at the 2015 World Cup. But Schmidt licked his wounds and learned the lessons that top sides need near-bottomless reserves to stay the World Cup course these days. Paul O'Connell, O'Mahony, Sexton and more were missing in that humbling 43-20 Cardiff loss to the Pumas. Saturday's 16-9 win over back-to-back world champions New Zealand in Dublin perfectly proved Ireland's strength in depth. Schmidt's men stunned the All Blacks in fine style - and all without Murray, O'Brien and Robbie Henshaw.
Who will most stand in their way?
The All Blacks will spit fire at each other and come back bigger, stronger, faster and meaner than in Saturday's Ireland defeat. The rest of the world ought to take heed of that, because improvement alone will not be enough to triumph at the World Cup - it will be improvement ahead of the global curve that will do the trick. Schmidt and Ireland have already talked at length in such terms. If any coach in the world can improve further still on nullifying this set of All Blacks though, Schmidt would be the best bet. A resurgent South Africa will be another big danger, and England are bound to have a big say in the argument come the latter stages in Japan.
What about next year's Six Nations?
Ireland's bid to retain their Six Nations title will be book-ended by two seriously tough challenges. Schmidt's men defeated England at Twickenham to land the mother of all Grand Slams last term - and must now host Eddie Jones' side in the first weekend of Europe's 2019 round robin. England will be desperate for vengeance after last year's loss. And come the last weekend of the tournament, Ireland must take on Wales in Cardiff. Should the title be on the line at the Principality Stadium, Warren Gatland's men will need precious little extra motivation to knock Ireland off their perch.