Wood: Time for Ireland to challenge
Keith Wood has described Ireland's repeated failure to progress beyond the World Cup quarter-finals as "a horrible and embarrassing statistic".
But with 100 days to go before rugby union's eighth global spectacular kicks off at Twickenham, Ireland's standing has arguably never been higher in a World Cup year.
They have won the last two RBS 6 Nations Championship titles under coaching mastermind Joe Schmidt and also beaten southern hemisphere heavyweights South Africa and Australia during his reign, suggesting they could finally mount a concerted challenge on the World Cup stage.
Ireland are drawn in the same pool as France, Italy, Canada and Romania, and Wood believes a semi-final appearance should be the minimum target for a squad that has made significant strides under Schmidt's astute direction.
And such an achievement would contrast starkly with previous Irish World Cup performances that realised five quarter-final exits, one quarter-final play-off defeat and a failure in 2007 to even progress beyond the pool stage.
Former Ireland captain Wood represented his country at three World Cups, experiencing last-eight elimination twice and one play-off demise when that additional knockout phase was used in 1999.
"It is a horrible and embarrassing statistic," said Wood, a Rugby World Cup 2015 MasterCard ambassador.
"There are times when we should have gone beyond the quarter-finals, but I think as a team and country in the professional era, we are probably more mature at this stage.
"I think the structures are probably right for us to have a bit of a tilt at it this time.
"I don't think you are going to hear noises like 'we are the best prepared team' and all that sort of stuff. Joe seems to have the big view always, while still keeping a very keen eye on the one game at a time mantra."
Wood, who won 58 caps and played in five Tests for the British and Irish Lions, was a member of the selection panel that recommended Schmidt's appointment as Ireland coach in April 2013, and he has huge admiration for the 49-year-old New Zealander.
"I think Joe has done a great job," Wood added.
"I sat on the selection panel, which was extraordinary in the fact that I had a series of questions ready to make him feel really uncomfortable, but he answered everything in his presentation. It was so comprehensive.
"I think he has brought that level of detail to the Irish team, and it needed it.
"I think it puts the players under an awful lot of pressure, physically. He works the players very hard, but they are responding to it very well and they are dedicated to it.
"If they can have all their players together, then you would say that their minimum target has to be getting to the semi-finals, but if say (half-backs) Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were injured, the shape of the team they've had for the last year is gone. How does the team react to that?
"I think an awful lot hinges on injuries over the next four or five months, but that applies to all the teams.
"At this stage, with the tournament so close, as a player you are just looking to get yourself in the best place you can possibly be and hope that you can clear yourself of injuries.
"It's a daunting time - full of fear and anticipation - and you want to make sure you don't play the Rugby World Cup in your mind before you get to the tournament because you will be burnt out."
While some of the World Cup contenders, including reigning champions New Zealand, should enjoy relatively trouble-free routes to the quarter-finals, the same cannot be said for hosts England, Wales and Australia.
Pitched together in the same pool, one high-profile nation will be eliminated with indecent haste, and Wood said: "That pool is just downright ugly.
"There are three teams there that have huge capacity and could each beat each other. There is nothing worse, really, than having a tournament where you have preordained quarter-finals. You can't preordain anything in that group, and I wouldn't want to call anything between any of those three teams.
"I think rugby has moved on quite a large step in the last four years. Look at what can only be described as almost an hallucinogenic final day of the Six Nations this year when all the (title-challenging) teams played at ludicrous levels.
"It showed that these players, sometimes, if they can take off the shackles a little bit and really push the standard, it opens up possibilities for the World Cup."
:: Keith Wood is a MasterCard Rugby World Cup 2015 brand ambassador. MasterCard will be delivering Priceless Surprises to MasterCard card holders and rugby fans around the world.