Winning run signals World Cup intentions
No longer underdogs but perfect 10 infuses team with confidence
ALL BLACK coach Steve Hansen was spotted tucking into a full Irish at Dublin airport yesterday after a flying visit that will have left him with plenty of food for thought.
Neither Ireland nor England are in New Zealand's pool at this year's World Cup, but chances are they'll meet somewhere along the way if the champions are to retain their crown.
He may have had more of an eye on the hosts initially, but the Kiwi can only have been impressed by his fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt's ability to produce win after win and turn Ireland into a force to be reckoned with.
Yesterday, World Rugby restored Ireland to their top three ranking as a result of Sunday's win as thoughts slowly moved towards Cardiff, Edinburgh and a potential Grand Slam.
Their rise through the ranks comes on the back of a winning run of 10 successive games that has equalled a record set by Eddie O'Sullivan's 2003 side, which came acropper in the infamous 'red carpet' Grand Slam decider against England.
On closer inspection, the calibre of teams Ireland have beaten since their last defeat against England at Twickenham on February 22 last year shows that this is a far higher quality winning run.
While the World Cup qualifiers against Russia, Georgia and Romania kicked off the original record run, seven of the teams Ireland have beaten this time around are in the top 10 of the world rankings.
The squad themselves have played down the importance of the run and they are unlikely to speak about creating history before taking on Cardifff, but Schmidt did reference the record in his final message to the squad before they took on England.
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"I'm sure the staff do in the privacy of their meetings but we don't really look at the big picture," Paul O'Connell said. "We just try and improve game by game and championship by championship and by. There's been a few ups and downs but by and large I think we've done that.
"It's close to (the best Ireland team he's played in). We're doing a lot of things really well. The way we're preparing is a lot different to what we've done throughout my time here and I think the game by game focus suits us, suits Irish teams, Irish people.
"There's a lot of competition for places and it's creating a brilliant and excitiing set-up to be involved in."
New Zealand are now the only top 10 team Ireland haven't beaten under Schmidt who cited his team's experience as a key factor in their ability to keep their winning run going.
Building a leadership group around O'Connell has been a key focus since the coach was appointed in 2013, with less experienced players like Chris Henry, Devin Toner and Felix Jones being groomed on the tour of the United States and Canada that summer before the Lions bolstered the corps the following November.
There is a hardened edge to Ireland since their November collapse against New Zealand in that first year, but one defeat in 13 Tests since has instilled players with a confidence in their coach, his plan and their own belief.
A winning run like the one Ireland are on can bring its own pressures, with expectancy and complacency twin threats for Schmidt, his coaching staff and sports psychologist Enda McNulty to deal with.
However, the New Zealander was successful in establishing an attitude to favouritism at Leinster that was at odds with the old Irish approach of preferring the underdog tag and he has spoken about his Ireland team's need to embrace that tag.
"Expectation is good," he said before last year's successful Six Nations campaign. "I wouldn't be a fan of being the underdog, I think sometimes you can become too comfortable with the underdog tag.
"At Leinster there was a mindshift where they became comfortable with being favourites and it almost gave them more desire to make sure expectations were met."
Public excitement rarely pricks the bubble the squad surround themselves in during Test week and, while this week's mini-camp in Belfast includes an open session at Ravenhill, Schmidt's demands are such that players don't get much of a chance to soak up the atmosphere as they carry out their duties at the required intensity.
In their public utterances, the players like to keep things low key and on message, while their focus stays on the processes involved in keeping the win running on a game-by-game basis.
Throughout 2015, the World Cup will loom large and there are now just two competitive games left before the big kick-off.
It would be unrealistic to expect Ireland to navigate their way through four warm-up games without losing and few will be bothered if Wales, Scotland or England put an end to the record in August or September as long as it remains intact for the next three weeks.
If it can survive the Cardiff onslaught and Schmidt's old mate Vern Cotter attempting to prevent a disastrous Wooden Spoon in his first season as Scottish coach, then the run will have taken in back-to-back Six Nations and a Grand Slam to boot.
Going into a World Cup with that kind of back-catalogue would put Ireland in a position of strength they have rarely experienced.
It wouldn't guarantee them anything and the memory of 2007 should always serve as a cautionary tale, but it would mark Schmidt's side out as a team that can go further than any of its predecessors at the world's biggest event.
For now, the focus switches to Wales and a trip to the stadium which will host two of Ireland's pool games next autumn.
The Six Nations remains more than worthy of the squad's focus and attention, but each win is being banked in their experience account as they build towards the year's focal point.
As Hansen's visit outlined, they will not be a surprise package but Schmidt has shown that, even when coaches reckon they have Ireland figured out, they are a hard team to beat.
The difficulty level goes up with every time they add a W to the win column and extend their run.
Ireland's record-winning runs compared
WC qualifier: Ireland 39 Romania 8
WC qualifier: Russia 3 Ireland 35
WC qualifier: Ireland 63 Georgia 14
Autumn Int: Ireland 18 Australia 9
Autumn Int: Ireland 64 Fiji 17
Autumn Int: Ireland 16 Argentina 7
Six Nations: Ireland 36 Scotland 6
Six Nations: Italy 13 Ireland 37
Six Nations: Ireland 15 France 12
Six Nations: Wales 24 Ireland 25
Six Nations: Ireland 46 Italy 7
Six Nations: France 20 Ireland 22
Tour: Argentina 17 Ireland 29
Tour: Argentina 17 Ireland 23
Autumn Int: Ireland 29 South Africa 17
Autumn Int: Ireland 42 Georgia 7
Autumn Int: Ireland 26 Australia 23
Six Nations: Italy 3 Ireland 26
Six Nations: Ireland 18 France 11
Six Nations: Ireland 19 England 9