The Irish didn't rediscover their 2018 selves until their most recent match two weeks ago, when they beat Wales 19-10 in Dublin. It was a warmup game, but with the intensity of a tournament match. Ireland was impressive and, remarkably, picked up the No. 1 ranking for the first time.
But the ranking could be lost before they even play Scotland, and restored to New Zealand if the All Blacks beat South Africa on Saturday. South Africa could even end up being No. 1 by the end of the opening weekend.
The Irish won't be worried, though. They already feel enough responsibility to prove they are a contender and not a pretender with the year they've had, without having to live up to being No. 1. Nobody is more nervous in the squad than the forensic-minded Joe Schmidt. He became Ireland coach halfway through the previous World Cup cycle, so didn't feel entirely responsible when a high-flying Ireland depleted by injuries and suspension was shredded by Argentina in the 2015 quarterfinals. Schmidt promised to make Ireland's playing stocks deeper and stronger, to be able to cover all the bases, and he has the butterflies as his four-year plan comes to fruition on Sunday.
Asked if Ireland was ready to peak, Schmidt said: "You've just got to hope so. You never quite know. But one thing I'll be really confident of is that we'll be tough to beat. "You'll see a very collective effort, and that effort will make us tough to beat. I've no doubt that the Scots will have been working away and will make themselves something similar. I don't think there's a huge amount between the two teams, so whoever does get the bounce of the ball or just be a little more efficient than the other just may tip the balance."
Ireland trusts it won't need a bounce or tip. It has bullied the Scots of late, winning eight of their 12 contests in this decade. When the Irish pack has imposed itself, world-class halves Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton have cashed in. Ireland was fortunate to leave Murrayfield with another win in February, however. Scotland dominated the second half but handicapped its chances by making 15 handling errors and losing three throw-ins.
The errors are a byproduct of the organized chaos the Scots are trying to play, but without the skill to match the ambition. When Gregor Townsend was hired as coach after Vern Cotter was axed after the last World Cup, he added an extra dimension in attack to match his go-for-broke personality. But Scotland has continued to struggle to perform consistently, and its record away from home is embarrassing.
But with Ireland not in a groove and without three of its British and Irish Lions backs who are injured, Townsend's squad believes it can hold its own in the set-pieces, put pressure on Murray and Sexton, and come through with its persistently high-tempo game.
"If there's a time to take on Ireland, I believe it's now, before they get a head of steam," fullback Stuart Hogg says. "It's the first time in a long time that we have got a really good squad to pick from. Everybody is fighting fit and gunning to get a starting jersey. The quality and standards in training have been right up there with the best I have been involved in.
"We feel we are in a good place. We're concentrating on ourselves and making sure that we don't beat ourselves — we don't make too many silly errors — and make sure we make the most of every single possibility we get."
Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Jack Carty, Chris Farrell.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Duncan Taylor, Sam Johnson, Sean Maitland, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson, John Barclay, Jonny Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Willem Nel, Stuart McInally (captain), Allan Dell. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Scott Cummings, Blade Thomson, Ali Price, Chris Harris, Darcy Graham.
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