State of the Nation: Ireland

Date published: March 25 2015

As we do at the end of a major tournament, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, Ireland!

Back-to-back Six Nations titles for the Irish as they enter the home straight of 2015's World Cup preparations with a spring in their step.

While they fell short of the Grand Slam after defeat in Cardiff, we have to agree with Brian O'Driscoll that it was possibly a blessing in disguise that loss as they stay under the radar somewhat. That's not to say however they are not real challengers for the Webb Ellis trophy.

Compared to other teams, few would disagree that Ireland boast a favourable draw. Should they top Pool D ahead of France, Italy, Canada and Romania, they would likely face Argentina in a Cardiff quarter before going to Twickenham for a semi-final clash with the victor of 'Winner of Pool A versus Runner-up of Pool B'. No disrespect to others but avoiding New Zealand and South Africa until the final is a dream scenario.

So can they go all the way? They simply have to be the best bet from the home nations due to their run of results over the past thirteen months and of course the World Cup route available to them. They are 9/1 for glory which is over double what is offered on England, albeit the hosts.

Barring the aforementioned All Blacks, Ireland are the form team in Tier 1 rugby as added to their Six Nations titles are November 2014 fillips. They have now won eleven out of their last twelve internationals – beating Australia and the Boks to go with northern scalps – so it is plain to see that Joe Schmidt has built a squad that could go all the way in October. Their only blemish was that recent defeat to Wales.

Credit must go to the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne as there hasn't been an O'Driscoll retirement hangover, while in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, the Irish boast one of the more solid half-back combinations in world rugby. Technical and intelligent, they are vital to their World Cup hopes, as will be veteran forwards Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip alongside Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony and Rory Best.

Up front they have demonstrated priceless depth at prop where Mike Ross, Marty Moore, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath rotate perfectly, with the only position up in the air being a match-changing wing option off the bench. Simon Zebo and the consistent Tommy Bowe should start when fit but will Schmidt stick with Felix Jones as his replacement or would he be better served by Craig Gilroy's X-factor in finely balanced games?

Away from the Six Nations, Keith Earls has enjoyed impressive performances for Munster as he returns from injury and surely can't be discounted due to his versatility. This is a good, minor headache to have for boss Schmidt following wins over Italy, France, England and Scotland, which turned out to be enough to keep Irish hands on the Six Nations trophy. In fact, like Wales, Ireland's 23 pretty much now picks itself.

Talk to any coach and such stability in selection is vital going into the World Cup, with a constantly-changing France their main pool rival before the knockouts. And with this kind of form coinciding with the PRO12 provinces all performing strongly in 2015, Ireland should fear no one later this year.

By Adam Kyriacou