'They have been insanely impressive' - Springboks legend Bryan Habana says Ireland are World Cup favourites
Former Springboks star Bryan Habana has labelled Ireland as the 'front-runners' heading into the 2019 World Cup as he heaped praised on Joe Schmidt's team following an 'insanely impressive' year.
Ireland have risen to number two in the world following a stellar 2018 that saw them claim a Six Nations Grand Slam, a test series win in Australia and an impressive victory over the All Blacks last month.
While Ireland remain behind New Zealand in the world rankings, expectations are building that 2019 will be the year where the team finally breaks through the glass ceiling that has been the World Cup quarter-final, and possibly even challenges for the trophy.
HSBC global rugby sevens ambassador Bryan Habana has been extremely impressed with Ireland's development under Schmidt over the last few years, and thinks that they are the 'team to beat' heading into the tournament in Japan.
"I definitely think they have got to be favourites," Habana told Independent.ie.
"New Zealand will always be the bookies favourites given they are the current holders and they always perform well, but Ireland will definitely be the team to beat given how well they have played over the last 18 months. They have blooded a lot of players and some of them have done really well. Jacob Stockdale on the wing, Garry Ringrose has been exceptional. Even with injuries to Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw, there have been guys who stepped up. Joe Schmidt has widened that net and the guys who have come in have grabbed the opportunity."
While the recent victory over the All Blacks - a first acheived by Ireland on home soil - generated a lot of attention, Habana points to two previous results as evidence that the team is now firmly among the world's elite.
"They have been insanely impressive - and it wasn't just in the autumn," Habana said.
"They won the Grand Slam, beating the England at Twickenham. Beating the All Blacks in Chicago was really impressive. Under Joe Schmidt, they have shown fantastic leadership but they have also shown some fantastic consistency. Joe Schmidt has got a lot of things right over the last five years in that set-up.
"They are probably heading into 2019 as front-runners. That win against the All Blacks will make them believe that they can achieve some great things."
One worry that accompanies Ireland into every World Cup is whether the pressure of having never reached a semi-final will negatively impact the team. In both the 2011 and 2015 tournaments, Ireland won all their pool games before losing in the last eight.
However, Habana feels that this Ireland team shouldn't fall into that trap, and will be legitmate contenders to win the World Cup in Japan.
"I don't think so," Habana said when asked whether the pressure could be too much for Ireland.
"I think the consistency of Joe Schmidt and with Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony and Johnny Sexton they have some fantastic leaders, and they have some fantastic young players blooded into the system. The target for them will definitely be to win the World Cup and it is probably the first time where Ireland can think of more than just competing in the World Cup, they can think of going on to think about possibly winning it."
Bryan Habana is a HSBC global rugby sevens ambassador. He is working alongside HSBC to support the explosive growth of rugby sevens, helping the exciting and unpredictable sport thrive all over the world. Follow all the action at @HSBC_Sport on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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