Ireland reach new heights and make New Zealand game an enticing prospect

The most satisfying week in Irish sporting history? If their horses can cope with the soft ground at Cheltenham and their rugby players canter to a triumphant grand slam at Twickenham on Saturday the next few days will definitely be up there. Just imagine the wild delight on St Patrick’s Day should England trail in a distant second behind Rory Best’s thoroughbred Six Nations champions.

The latest official World Rugby rankings are already worth toasting. As a consequence of their team’s four successive championship victories to date and England’s recent nosedive, the rankings now read as follows: 1) New Zealand, 2) Ireland, 3) England, 4) Australia, 5) South Africa. It is only the second time in history the Irish have been ranked so high – the previous occasion was for a fleeting fortnight in August 2015 just before the last World Cup.

It begs the inevitable question: how much further can this green machine go? The All Blacks remain well out in front but anyone who has studied Ireland’s steady development under Joe Schmidt will be aware there is potential to narrow the gap. To watch Garry Ringrose ease impressively back into the fray against Scotland, to see Jacob Stockdale threatening the Six Nations try-scoring record and glimpse the obvious promise of Jordan Larmour is certainly to be excited about the squad’s attacking potential. With the unsung Dan Leavy, James Ryan and Andrew Porter also making an impact up front, Ireland’s strength in depth has never been greater.

Of course it is possible they may yet come unstuck at Twickenham, that the grand slam expectation gets to them as it did Clive Woodward’s English sides in the not-so-distant past. Remember, though, what Woodward’s team went on to achieve in 2003. This is not a prospect anyone envisaged around the dawn of professionalism but Ireland stand a genuine chance of conquering the world next year.

For a start they have the wily Schmidt. Quietly, methodically, obsessively at times, the New Zealander has moulded Ireland into a team who make fewer mistakes than almost anyone else. Long gone are the ‘give it a lash’ days of Mick Doyle or the fear that Irish sides did not have the power or the fitness to live with the world’s best. Now their scrum is virtually immovable, they possess a truly great half-back pairing, umpteen midfield options and proper pace out wide. The retirement of the long-serving Jamie Heaslip the other week merely highlighted the manner in which CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and the rest have grown into their roles.

When you consider Sean O’Brien has been injured for this Six Nations, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Josh van der Flier have also been out of action and Tadhg Furlong is only just back fit, there is no shortage of back‑up artillery either. Should they beat England at Twickenham and clean up the Wallabies in Australia this summer, the fixture many people will be keenest to see this autumn might just take place in Dublin on 17 November, the weekend after the All Blacks have visited Twickenham.

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