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A look ahead at Ireland’s road to Paris

Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent

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Ireland will travel to France with major World Cup ambitions.

And just like that, after what felt like a short break, the new rugby season is upon us, with Ireland’s World Cup preparation well underway at this stage.

Before we know it, the main event will begin, as all roads lead to France for what is shaping up to be one of the most open and thrilling World Cups ever.

It has been a hugely successful year for Ireland, who, after brilliantly clinching last summer’s historic series in New Zealand, won all three games last November, including downing the world champions South Africa, before Andy Farrell’s side backed it up with another clean sweep, this time en-route to winning the Grand Slam in emphatic style.

With all that mind, Ireland could hardly be better set for what lies ahead this Autumn, but history shows us that form can quickly go out the window when the pressure of a World Cup cranks up.

That so often means that tournaments take on a life of their own, yet Ireland have earned their place as the number one ranked team in the world, and up to this point, they have coped well with the target that is on their backs.

Kicking off their first of three warm-up games with a comprehensive win over Italy at the Aviva Stadium left Farrell and the coaches with plenty of food for thought ahead of the arrival of England to Dublin, before Ireland finish with a clash against Samoa in Bayonne.

Farrell is due to name his 33-man squad on August 28, two days after that final warm-up game in the south of France, which means the head coach must cut nine players from his current wider training group.

Competition for places has rarely been as fierce, with Farrell facing plenty of tough decisions over the coming weeks, but given the quality of players at his disposal, they are exactly the kind of selection headaches that every coach craves.

Farrell will be keeping his fingers and toes crossed that by the time he goes to finalise his squad, all 42 players are still in contention because these warm-up games have a habit of throwing up unwanted scenarios, such as injuries and suspensions.

The sight of Jack Conan in a protective moon boot following Ireland’s 33-17 victory over Italy was a sobering reminder of how the landscape can quickly change, even if the Leinster No 8’s foot injury may not be that serious.

Farrell got a good look at plenty of fringe players during that five-try win, as Ulster hooker Tom Stewart, versatile Leinster back Ciarán Frawley and Munster winger Calvin Nash made their Ireland debuts.

As well as that, Leinster lock Joe McCarthy was excellent on what was his first Test start, while Jack Crowley built on his strong end-of-season form during Munster’s superb run to the URC title by delivering on his promise once again.

The pick of the bunch, however, was Caelan Doris, who continues to take his game to ridiculously good heights. Despite starting in a more unfamiliar role at openside, the first time he had done so for Ireland, Doris was immense, as he further highlighted just why he is being tipped to be one of the biggest stars at the World Cup.

The countdown is already on for Ireland’s opening pool game against Romania on September 9. Bordeaux is expected to be a sea of green as thousands of Irish supporters are set to flock to France for what promises to be the trip of a lifetime.

The Romania game will also allow Johnny Sexton to make his long-awaited return from injury and suspension, as the talismanic out-half begins his last dance before retiring following the tournament.

A rejuvenated Tongan outfit are next up for Ireland in Nantes on September 16, which leads into the big one against the defending champions Springboks at the Stade de France the following weekend. 

South Africa have their sights set ongoing back-to-back, but that game in Paris will likely set the tone for what is to come for both teams. Ireland will round off their pool campaign with another trip to the Stade de France to face old foes Scotland.

For all that confidence is justifiably high that Ireland can pull off something special at the 2023 World Cup, there is also a deep realisation that the path to glory is laced with danger.

Should Farrell’s men manage to come through what is a tricky pool, they are likely to face a quarter-final meeting with hosts France or New Zealand, both of whom will be gunning for revenge following their recent defeats to Ireland.

Either way, draws don’t come much tougher, but as the old adage goes, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

And that’s the thing about this Ireland team. They have beaten all of the top sides during this World Cup cycle, which means they hold no fear going into the tournament.

Sure, they will be mindful that no Irish team has ever managed to get beyond the quarter-final, but even allowing for the weight of history, Farrell has built such resilience within his squad, mainly by meeting adversity head on, the players have every right to feel that they can achieve something special this time around.

A lot will have to go right in order for that to happen, but whereas in the past, winning a World Cup felt like a pipe dream, it is now a very attainable goal for a group of players with major ambitions. 

There is still plenty of road left to run before the big dance, with the next few weeks all about fine-tuning the game-plan and getting as many players as possible to the start line.

With Sexton’s return set to significantly boost Ireland’s chances of being successful come October, what better way for the legendary captain to bow out than leading his side to the promised land.