'Afraid to dream': Ireland struggles with expectation as Rugby World Cup kicks off

It's time for the world's keenest underdogs to finally tackle the burden of being a favourite.

Ireland head into the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which begins tomorrow evening, as the best team in the world on current form, but with a tangible sense of trepidation among supporters.

The 20-team tournament kicks off in Paris when hosts France take on New Zealand.

Bookies fancy both those teams - along with South Africa - for the trophy ahead of Ireland, despite being the Irish occupying the top of the world rankings for the past 14 months.

Ireland are also the reigning Six Nations grand slam champions, recorded a historic series win in New Zealand last year, and boast a 13-game winning streak.

But they can't escape a long, bleak history of underperformance at the World Cup - crashing out at the quarter-final stage no fewer than seven times.

To put it another way, Ireland have never won a knockout game at the World Cup.

Combined with pitching up on the "hard" side of the draw, you could understand talk of nerves from Ireland captain Johnny Sexton in Bordeaux ahead of the team's opening game against minnows Romania.

"It's very much like a soccer World Cup atmosphere," he told reporters.

"And we're looking forward to that. But also with that comes a bit of nerves.

"We've built to this moment for the last four years, so now it's finally here the nerves come in, but it's about embracing them and going out and trying to play our best."

There are certainly plenty of nerves back home, in a country that traditionally revels in its role as a scrappy sporting underdog, punching above its weight on the world stage.

This is not yet a nation comfortable with the tag of world number one. There is to be no cockiness.

"Think it. Just don't jinx it," says Ireland legend Brian O'Driscoll in a video promoting a certain black stout. He is of course, talking about the title.

Can they win it, I asked the country's prime minister.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paused, before tentatively replying: "I really feel that this year could be our year, but we've managed not to pull it off so many times in the past, I'm almost kind of afraid to hope."

How is this the narrative in a country that has simply swept all opponents before it?

"I think it's part of the Irish psyche," laughs Iain Wallace, director of rugby at Wesley College, a secondary school in Dublin.

"Afraid to dream almost, yeah. I think we've an underdog mentality here, and I think we'd be happier going in as number two, number three in the world and having something to prove.

"So it's over to the players really, to prove they're number one."

Wesley's most famous product is the current world rugby player of the year Josh van der Flier, an integral member of the Irish team in France.

As dozens of fifth and sixth-year players practice on the school's pitches, even those young enough to know nothing but Irish success are cautious about van der Flier's chances of returning home with a winner's medal.

Quarter-final, semi-final, quarter-final, final - the predictions of 16-year-olds on the sidelines.

Only Hannah Ritchie voices the impossible.

"I think they can do it," she says breezily.

"The past season has been incredible, and I have full confidence that they can do it."

"I think there's an element of realism within the country," former Irish and British and Irish Lions player Rob Kearney tells Sky News.

"Especially after 2019, the last World Cup.

"We were ranked the number one team going into the competition, we had just come off the back of a grand slam the year before, and expectation was high, the hype was high.

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"And we crashed out of that tournament [losing to 46-14 to New Zealand in the quarter-finals]. So I think there's a little more realism this time around.

"It's always there in the back of your mind, knowing that no other team in the history of your country's World Cup participation have been able to get past that quarter-final stage.

"It is a big obstacle, a mental obstacle too, but at the same time this team will be very aware that they're a new group of players.

"They're very different to all the teams that have gone before. They have broken history before, and they will just see this as another opportunity to break history again."

Kearney thinks there's never been an Irish rugby team more equipped to break the quarter-final jinx, and finally achieve something resembling its full potential.

"Some of the arguments in the past would be that the team peaked too early.

"This team hasn't peaked too early, it's just really important they hit the ground running early in the competition, but ultimately everything is going to come down to that quarter-final game, provided everything goes to plan.

"It's all going to come down to the last 10/15 minutes of the quarter-final game, and it doesn't matter if it's New Zealand or France, it's still going to be a monumental game and a game in which Ireland will have to produce one of their best, if not their best, performance of last couple of years."

The former British and Irish Lion is in little doubt that Ireland will fare better than its closest neighbours.

"I think of the three [British] teams, Scotland are the ones going in with the most form. They're playing the best rugby. Obviously they're in the toughest group, with South Africa and Ireland.

"England have been very, very poor over the last number of years, and they haven't picked up any sort of form pre-tournament, but they still have some very world-class players in that group, and they could potentially turn it around, because they have the quality of players to do that.

"Wales, I'm not sure they have the quality of players, and they don't have the form within them as a team.

"We've spoken a lot about the [Warren] Gatland effect, and him coming back, but I don't think we've seen it yet. They are on the easier side of the draw, so anything could happen on that side of the draw."

The Rugby World Cup is a gruelling tournament, lasting seven weeks. It's finally time for this special Ireland team to navigate uncharted waters, and prove they truly deserve the sobriquet of best in the world.