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World Cup ultimate test for Home Unions

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    31 Dec 2018     Getty Images

That's the view of The Rugby Paper columnist Nick Cain.

Cain said the biggest issue facing Ireland, installed by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen as the World Cup favourites, had been their failure to go from underdogs to favourites.

They had gone a long way in 2018 to burying that fallability by winning the Six Nations, achieving a Grand Slam and beating all-comers.

"The most notable of those Irish victories was over New Zealand six weeks ago, and it confirmed them as one of the favourites to win the 2019 tournament.

"However, with the Six Nations imminent, the Irish will have to reaffirm they are as comfortable being the side that are hunted as when they are among the hunters," he said.

The only other psychological immunity Ireland had left to develop was the one that helped them avoid the boom-bust virus.

England had provided an example of that when plummeting from the heights of a 2016 Grand Slam, and a 17-Test winning run, to end the 2018 Six Nations in fifth place, followed by a series loss to South Africa in June.

While having a central contracts system meant Ireland could achieve a degree of player welfare, especially when compared to an England selection still dominated by clubs, there had been something of a charmed life for Ireland on the injury front.

"The development of greater strength-in-depth during Schmidt's tenure has given the Irish squad a greater layer of insulation against injury than they have had at any stage during the pro era," Cain said.

But Ireland were still vulnerable if they should lose first five-eighths Johnny Sexton, tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong or lock James Ryan, he said.

England had been forced to do without their best ball-carrier Billy Vunipola for almost two years while their most powerful back Manu Tuilagi had been out for nearly four years. Vunipola's understudy at No.8 Nathan Hughes and flanker Sam Underhill had both suffered injuries that had them in and out of surgery.

Several other injuries across the side had depleted England's resources. There had been signs of a recovery in November but a first-up Test in the Six Nations against Ireland, in Dublin, was going to be a key encounter.

"Ireland's strongest 23 looks to have an edge on what England can muster.

"Yet, if England can dent Joe Schmidt's outfit – in the same way they did to the All Blacks a week before they were beaten in Dublin – then Ireland's trip to play Scotland at Murrayfield a week later could be a minefield," Cain said.

Scotland will sense their chance, especially with a view to scoring a psychological blow before they meet Ireland again in their World Cup pool game in late-September.

Wales had also recovered and had developed depth and would be eyeing their last round clash in Cardiff as the perfect chance to pull off an ambush against Ireland.

The two sides are due to play two friendlies before the World Cup.

Given the hint of a seismic shift as a result of the November Tests, Cain said, "What's pleasing is that this time when we say may the best team from the four Home Unions win the 2019 World Cup, it does not have a hollow ring."