WHOSE boots would you rather be in at the start of this World Cup year: England’s or Ireland’s?
It seems a redundant question; surely it is Ireland’s given they beat reigning world champions New Zealand as recently as November.
They are up to No 2 in the world rankings, are playing with immense confidence and are seen by most people as the most likely team to end the All Blacks’ eight-year domination of the Webb Ellis Trophy when everyone descends on Japan in September.
Moreover, let us not forget that Joe Schmidt’s side – Six Nations champions and clear favourites to retain that title as their defence gets underway tonight – have defeated New Zealand twice in the last three years alone.
How many other countries can say that in recent times?
To put it into context, England have not beaten the ‘silver fern’ since 2012, and that success was the only time in the last 16 years.
Yet is all of this just irrelevant conjecture?
As Ireland prepare to host England in Dublin this evening, the first weekend of February, subconsciously thoughts are already turning to what comes at the end of the year, and that is true on both sides.
It is perhaps why Eddie Jones, the England coach, will be more at ease than his counterpart.
There will be fears among some Irish that their side could potentially have peaked too soon; can they truly carry this form all the way through to Kanagawa on November 2?
Jones, on the other hand, will be thinking his side are starting to fire again.
After that remarkable run of 22 wins from the Australian’s opening 23 Tests in charge, 2018 was alarmingly arduous, last year’s Six Nations – when they finished fifth – proving particularly painful.
Yet after five successive losses, stretching into the summer tour of South Africa, they emerged from the autumn with confidence restored, three victories from four outings and knowing, in all honesty, they should also have beaten the All Blacks at Twickenham.
England have had their blip. The reset button has been pressed.
If they can maintain their recovery this evening and overcome the Irish they will instantly become favourites for this Championship and, given sport’s innate fickleness, probably be seen as the All Blacks’ biggest threat, too.
It remains, however, a big ‘if’.
For all there is optimism in the English ranks, not least with the welcome sight of Manu Tuilagi making his first Six Nations start in six years and the return of the world-class Vunipola siblings Mako and Billy up front, there is an acknowledgement of just how good are these opponents.
Indeed, Jones, always a purveyor of mind games given half an opportunity, has been selling the line that Ireland are the best team in the world at the moment.
But in the same moment he has been wondering out loud whether they can handle the pressure that comes with it.
“Everyone is writing them up and they have got to carry that expectation round,” he said yesterday.
“We’re excited about playing there. Praise can make you weak.”
Faint praise, indeed.
However, undoubtedly Ireland are excellent all over the field and it is hard to single out a weak aspect of their play.
Jones and his coaching staff will have spent plenty of time trying to do just that and perhaps he will see Tuilagi’s physicality in midfield as their best hopes of success.
But Schmidt’s side are so well-organised, so efficient, so ruthless and, more than anything, so damn driven that everything England deliver must be right on point.
Worryingly, for all their improvement of late, Jones’s side still struggle for precision at crucial times and, if that continues, you sense that will cost them dearly in Dublin this evening.
Of course, there is an Englishman in the Irish ranks helping to make them so resolute, too.
One wonders what Jones would do now if he had his time over; would he have let defence coach Andy Farrell go four years ago if he knew then what he knows now?
Having helped mastermind Ireland’s first win over the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016 the former Great Britain rugby league captain then set up his side perfectly at Aviva Stadium in November as the world champions failed to score a single try when losing out again, 16-9.
It is perhaps no surprise England have been tapping into inside knowledge gathered during the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to help devise their own plan to unpick Farrell’s stellar Ireland defence.
England supplied the largest contingent of players to the Lions squad that travelled to New Zealand, with Farrell overseeing Warren Gatland’s defence and Steve Borthwick – Jones’s assistant – guiding the pack.
When asked for the approach to toppling Ireland, England attack coach Scott Wisemantel said: “Score more points than they do. We’ll chip away.
“We’ve got some things in place to combat their defence and we’ve studied that really hard.
“A guy we’ve tapped into is Steve Borthwick, who spent time with Andy Farrell on the Lions tour. We fully respect their system.”
Out on the field Farrell’s son Owen will look to use his own knowledge of his father’s techniques as he pilots England from No 10.
His own battle with Ireland fly-half and Lions team-mate Johnny Sexton should be fascinating.
Yes, indeed. Maybe the World Cup can wait for now after all.