The expert view: With a year to go until Ireland's opener at the Rugby World Cup, our team give their verdict
This fay next year, Joe Schmidt's Ireland team kick off their World Cup campaign against Scotland in Yokohama. Here's the view from our expert panel on the biggest tournament in rugby in 2019.
1. A year out from the World Cup, do you believe anyone can stop the All Blacks from retaining the Webb Ellis trophy?
Ruadhri O'Connor: While they remain the best team in the world, this New Zealand side lack the leadership and strength in depth of the 2015 outfit and can be beaten by a number of teams, including Ireland. They’re still the favourites, but they can be beaten.
Cian Tracey: Yes, because they are not the invincible force many believe they still are. The strength and depth of their squad is not as strong as it was in 2015 and teams like Ireland have shown how to beat them. The All Blacks will definitely arrive in Japan as hot favourites but they are beatable.
Alan Quinlan: It will be difficult, but it can be done. South Africa proved last weekend that if you take your chances and don’t panic when the pressure cranks up, this New Zealand side are fallible. Any team that does beat them will have to produce a quality, 80-minute performance, though.
David Kelly: Of course they can, because New Zealand have shown they can be beaten by their rivals in once-off matches. This is arguably the least impressive of their last three Rugby World Cup squads. Defensive chinks and uncertainty from the placed ball make them vulnerable.
Tony Ward: No. With respect to the rest of the watching world, what transpired last week in Wellington was the worst thing that could have happened. It was a wake-up call 12 months out for the most powerful squad, which needs it the least.
2. What one thing would you most like to see Joe Schmidt’s Ireland improve on over the next 12 months?
RO'C: There is still room for improvement in attack, particularly when the team go through multiple phases and when they get into the opposition’s 22. With an excellent set-piece, superb breakdown work and an aggressive defence, it is the final link in the chain.
CT: Tighten up defensively, particularly in the wider channels. Teams have identified that Ireland can be vulnerable out wide and they have been punished for it. Getting their spacing right and strong communication will be key to rectifying that.
AQ: It may not be the easiest on the eye but the maul remains a really potent attacking weapon in the modern game, even though maul defence has improved in recent seasons. It takes a lot of patience and organisation but in a tight game, and particularly with the way Ireland play, having an effective attacking maul could be the difference between winning and losing.
DK: Trust in squad depth. This has been absent from all previous editions, either through lack of quality or lack of exposure. This should not be an excuse in 2019 as the careful cultivation of the past 18 months, in line with success, has demonstrated.
TW: A little more precision in passing upon the turnover, but directly related to that is the need for the breathtaking pace the very top nations (previous winners) still seem to possess in abundance.
3. Which player can they least afford to lose and why?
RO'C: It’s a toss-up between Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, but nobody sets the tone for this team like the out-half who is the side’s de facto captain. Joey Carbery can bridge the gap this year, but Sexton remains the main man.
CT: Johnny Sexton. He continues to prove why he is the heartbeat of this team and while Joey Carbery is an able deputy, he has a bit to go before being able to run a game as expertly as Sexton does.
AQ: It’s a toss-up between Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, and I see our first-choice halfbacks as a package. Kieran Marmion has stepped in for Murray in the past and Joey Carbery offers good cover for Sexton, but Ireland’s depth in those key positions is not as strong as other areas on the field. Losing either of them would be a massive blow to Ireland’s chances.
DK: Jonathan Sexton. Ireland’s halves are their cog but even were Conor Murray to miss a crucial knockout game, the pivot could manage in his absence; it remains to be seen whether a scrum-half could do so were his general to be missing.
TW: No-brainer. The loss of either first-choice halfback would border on catastrophic. I do believe that between Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath there is the makings of a substantial replacement scrum-half, while the case for Joey Carbery rests entirely on his upcoming developmental form at Munster.
4. Name an uncapped Irish player who could force his way into Joe Schmidt’s squad.
RO'C: With Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan unlikely to be considered given their moves abroad, the out-half stocks are thin. Irish-qualified No 10 Billy Burns has arrived at Ulster with Premiership experience and has the platform to kick on and force his way into the reckoning behind Sexton and Carbery.
CT: Ross Byrne should get capped in November and go on to make the squad. Will Addison, Billy Burns and Mike Haley are also Irish-qualified and will fancy their chances. Jean Kleyn becomes eligible late in the day, but Schmidt may also look at the powerful lock.
AQ: Will Addison and Jean Kleyn. Addison is a versatile player who impressed when training with the Ireland squad in Australia and he has started the season well for Ulster. Kleyn might not be Irish-qualified until close to the tournament but I feel he would offer something different in the second-row; a bit of brute force and doggedness that could be very useful.
DK: Gavin Thornbury. The Connacht lock is doing plenty of things right already this season.
TW: I would like to think that at this stage the preliminary squad, in Joe’s mind at least, is set. I am reluctant to name a bolter as in all honesty I don’t see one capable of breaking into the squad. I would, however, caution Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway too, that in Darren Sweetnam’s style of play I see the type of wide attacker I referred to in question 2.
5. Do you believe Ireland will break their quarter-final glass ceiling in Japan, 2019?
RO'C: Yes. The first two pool games will set the tone, but if they can put Scotland and Japan to bed then Ireland have an 18-day period to prepare for either South Africa or New Zealand while taking care of Russia and Samoa, which sets them up nicely for the game of their lives.
CT: Yes. They have one of the best coaches in the world in charge of arguably the country’s strongest squad. The pool could be tricky in parts and a potential quarter-final against the Springboks will not be easy, but if Ireland can arrive at that point without too many key injuries, they can make history.
AQ: They are certainly good enough to and with a bit of luck I think they will. Injuries to key players really undermined Ireland’s challenge three years ago, while in 2011 they were caught a bit flat against a very good Wales side. If they get a bit of luck there is no reason why they cannot reach uncharted territory.
DK: As we have said before the last three World Cups, they may never have a better opportunity; this challenge appears to have more substance but key players must remain fit and the current form of other rivals must be discounted for they, too, will peak for a World Cup.
TW: Yes, but it’s going to be tough. We must beat Scotland in the opening game which will then put topping a generous Pool A in our own hands. The real crunch would come against South Africa in the quarter-final as despite last Saturday’s Rugby Championship setback, I take New Zealand to top Pool B. Time to think big.
6. Pick a 31-man Ireland squad for the tournament
RO'C: R Kearney, J Larmour, K Earls, J Stockdale, D Sweetnam; G Ringrose, B Aki, R Henshaw; J Sexton, J Carbery, B Burns, C Murray, J Cooney; R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell; C Healy, J McGrath; T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan; James Ryan, D Toner, I Henderson; T Beirne, P O’Mahony, R Ruddock, S O’Brien, D Leavy, CJ Stander, J Murphy.
CT: R Kearney, J Larmour, A Conway, K Earls, J Stockdale, F McFadden; G Ringrose, B Aki, R Henshaw; J Sexton, J Carbery, R Byrne; C Murray, J Cooney; R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell; C Healy, J McGrath; T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan; James Ryan, D Toner, I Henderson; T Beirne, P O’Mahony, R Ruddock, S O’Brien, D Leavy, CJ Stander.
AQ: R Kearney, J Larmour, K Earls, J Stockdale, A Conway; G Ringrose, B Aki, R Henshaw, C Farrell; J Sexton, J Carbery; C Murray, K Marmion, J Cooney; R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell; C Healy, J McGrath; T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan; James Ryan, D Toner, I Henderson; T Beirne, P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, D Leavy, CJ Stander, J Conan.
DK: R Kearney, J Larmour, K Earls, J Stockdale, D Sweetnam; G Ringrose, B Aki, R Henshaw; J Sexton, J Carbery, J Carty; C Murray, J Cooney; J Tracy, S Cronin, N Scannell; C Healy, J McGrath; T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan; James Ryan, D Toner, I Henderson, T Beirne; P O’Mahony, R Ruddock, S O’Brien, D Leavy, CJ Stander, J Conan.
TW: R Kearney J Larmour, A Conway, K Earls J Stockdale, D Sweetnam; G Ringrose, R Henshaw, B Aki; J Sexton, J Carbery; C Murray, K Marmion; R Best, S Cronin, N Scannell; C Healy, J McGrath; T Furlong, A Porter, John Ryan; James Ryan, I Henderson, D Toner, T Beirne; P O’Mahony, J Murphy, S O’Brien, D Leavy, J Conan and CJ Stander.