The heat’s on Ireland at the Rugby World Cup. Time to get used to being a title favorite

The Ireland squad prepared for the sweltering temperatures of western France. Now to deal with the unfamiliar heat of being a Rugby World Cup title favorite.

Never has an Ireland team been so highly rated or so highly ranked heading into the showpiece, and while a 14-month run at No. 1 in the world shows an extended period of excellence that can’t be denied, it’s make or break now.

You don’t want that to be all for nothing.

“We’ve been building nicely during the summer,” fullback Hugo Keenan said on Wednesday. “We’ve been preparing for this not only in this preseason block, but for the last couple of years as well. So, we’re ready for it.”

Ireland has never made it past the quarterfinals at a World Cup, and has lost at that stage the last three times. Anything less than winning this tournament will likely be viewed as a bitter disappointment.

That’s a pretty big leap, but nothing this Ireland team isn’t capable of making after an historic come-from-behind series win in New Zealand in July last year to climb to the top of the rankings for only the second time in its history.

The Irish have been there ever since, winning a national record 13 games on the bounce up to now and sweeping aside challenges from the northern and southern hemisphere to make them the undoubted best team in the world on current form.

Ireland’s World Cup opener against minnow Romania in Bordeaux on Saturday is expected to bring a straightforward 14th win to get the France campaign started, although with temperatures possibly peaking at 37 Celsius (98 F) for the afternoon game, according to the forecast, it brings another challenge for a team used to playing in the gentle drizzle of Dublin.

Preparing for that kind of heat has been part of the plans.

“We’ve had a brilliant preseason,” Ireland assistant coach John Fogarty said. “We’ve been to Portugal, it was nice and warm. We were down in Biarritz. It’s (the heat) certainly going to play its part at 3 p.m. in Bordeaux, but we feel we have stressed the players around that.

“There are some really good strategies about how we’re going to deal with it. It’s certainly a factor, but we feel we’re ready.”

What Ireland didn’t plan on is forwards Dave Kilcoyne, Dan Sheehan and Jack Conan all being ruled out against Romania with injury. Captain and flyhalf pivot Jonathan Sexton also upset the run-in by getting banned for three games for confronting match officials after the European club final in May.

That kept the 38-year-old Sexton out of all of Ireland’s World Cup warmups and leaves him short of gametime. He’s likely to play some part against Romania to make up for that.

“It’s good to just be available for selection,” Sexton said this week. “Hopefully can get some match minutes.”

Forwards coach Paul O’Connell said there’s players in need of getting some miles in their legs, so Ireland will look to give as many frontliners a runout as necessary against the Romanians, while also balancing the need to save bodies for much bigger tests ahead.

Ireland also plays the physical Tonga, world champion South Africa and Six Nations rival Scotland in arguably the toughest pool of the tournament, and needs to play seven games in seven weeks to clinch the World Cup.

All of the opponents would love to get one over the world’s best, starting with Romania.

“Our only focus is on Saturday,” Keenan said. “They’re going to throw the kitchen sink at us, just like every team in this competition.”

That’s the burden of being No. 1. Ireland has carried it brilliantly for more than a year. Another two months would be enough.


AP Rugby World Cup:

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