Rugby World Cup: Ireland flair can light up World
So, here we go then... the 2015 World Cup starts tonight and I for one can't wait. I'm also really looking forward to writing for the Belfast Telegraph during the tournament which hopefully will live up to all the great expectations.
The interest in the Ireland team is huge and understandably so because of what coach Joe Schmidt and his players have achieved in recent years, with Six Nations success.
The question everyone wants answered is how they will do in the more pressurised environment of the World Cup?
Well, with Joe able to call on some world class players, I genuinely believe this Ireland team can be the one to go where no other has at a World Cup - and make it to the semi-final stage and from there anything can happen.
The spine of the team, where you have all your decision makers, is filled with talent. We have Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien in the forward line plus scrum half Conor Murray, out half Johnny Sexton and full back Rob Kearney. That's a world class spine in my book.
It's a tremendous chance for this group of players to show just how good they really are, especially the likes of O'Connell and Best with this their last stand on the global stage.
The tenacity and determination, the strength and fitness, we know is there but, I would add in this tournament, the team that wins isn't going to do it on organisation and defence alone.
To reach the last four and be in with a chance of playing in the final, Ireland MUST play with a bit more flair than we've seen in recent games.
There needs to be that bit of inspiration and that bit of invention in the backline that the All Blacks have been so good at over the years.
Sexton is going to be a key figure for that. He makes the whole side tick and with Murray at nine, another hugely influential player, Ireland will look to that pair to produce big performances in the weeks to come.
It's been interesting watching Ireland in the run up to the 2015 World Cup. I feel they have played with a very controlled game-plan over the last two seasons but I think we can expect Schmidt to do things differently now that the tournament is upon us.
For the last three months, he's had his players where he wants them. He's has had them day in day out, just like he had when he coached at Leinster and we all remember how they delivered on the big occasion.
He's a guy who likes to ensure all the bases are covered and he'll have been able to do that over the past few months.
I have no doubt that Ireland will make it through to the knockout stages.
The key is going to be avoiding the favourites and holders New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
To ensure Ireland don't meet the All Blacks in the last eight, they will need to beat France in their final group game, whether that's by a point or 30 points.
The way the fixtures have worked out, starting with Canada and Romania before tougher tests against Italy and France, is perfect for Ireland and gives them a real chance to build momentum.
Knowing Schmidt, though, his focus will only be on tomorrow's opener with Canada at the Millennium Stadium.
Gareth Rees, the Canadian team manager, is someone I know well.
He played against us in the first World Cup and we were both captains of our national teams in later years.
He and Kieran Crowley will have Canada prepared and they'll be big and strong.
It could be fairly tough for half an hour but thereafter Ireland should blitz them and believe me they'll want to.
From what I hear, the Millennium Stadium is almost sold out and the Irish fans will be keen to see the team make an impressive start. The players themselves will be keen to set down a marker to move forward with confidence.
Once the wheels come off Canada, assuming they do, I expect Joe to empty the bench to make sure a lot of people get game time.
For a tournament this long, it's a tour in all but name, and it's important that you keep everyone happy. You don't want to have the dirt-trackers (second string players) feeling like they have little chance of actually getting on to the field. It's important to have everyone keep their spirits up and that's hard to do if you're not playing at all.
For Joe as well, it's crucial he knows his best team in a few weeks time, who's in form, who's coping with the pressure and who is ready to go out there and perform. After all, once Ireland beat Canada and then Romania, the big challenges lie ahead.