sport news Ireland Rugby World Cup preview: England have opened major cracks twice this ...

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Joe Schmidt guided Ireland to some dizzying heights in 2018. A year that began with a stunning Six Nations Grand Slam thanks to that last-gasp drop goal from Johnny Sexton in Paris which proved the catalyst for a clean sweep, culminating in a 24-15 triumph over England in their own backyard at Twickenham. 

Leinster - bulk suppliers to the national cause - would finish the season as Pro14 and European champions for good measure. The good times carried on into the summer as Schmidt took his squad Down Under for a three-Test series against Michael Cheika's Wallabies. Ireland would win a hard-fought series 2-1, a first series victory on Australian soil since 1979.

The hype was beginning to build around this Ireland squad. That excitement become full-blown hysteria the following November when the All Blacks were vanquished in Dublin. This squad were being heralded as World Cup contenders. They had the coach, the players and the confidence to achieve great things in Japan.

Jacob Stockdale goes over to score as Ireland famosuly beat New Zealand in November 2018

Jacob Stockdale goes over to score as Ireland famosuly beat New Zealand in November 2018

POOL A FIXTURES

Scotland, September 22, 8.45am

Japan, September 28, 8.15am

Russia, October 3, 11.15am

Samoa, October 12, 11.45am

Ireland's record across the 32-history of the global showpiece is grim reading. Never has an Ireland side progressed past the quarter-final stage and on two occasions - in 1999 and 2007 - they failed to even progress that far.

But this Ireland squad looked a completely different proposition and were primed to break that glass ceiling and reach a first-ever World Cup semi-final, and possibly more.

Fast forward six months and the landscape now looks very, very different.

Ireland have been seemingly in free-fall since the events of February 2 at the Aviva Stadium. It was the opening weekend of the Six Nations and Eddie Jones had brought an England squad across the water on a revenge mission. Owen Farrell and Co were forced to stand and watch as Rory Best and his victorious squad paraded around Twickenham as Grand Slam champions the previous season. 

Bolstered by the return of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi, they arrived in Dublin ready to make a big statement. The visitors scored within 90 seconds through Jonny May's slick try and Ireland never recovered. It would finish 32-20 in England's favour leaving Schmidt's squad shell-shocked. Ireland were blown away by England's physicality on the night. 

Henry Slade goes over to score as Ireland are stunned by England in Dublin in February

Henry Slade goes over to score as Ireland are stunned by England in Dublin in February

KEY PLAYER 

Johnny Sexton

The conductor-in-chief of this Ireland squad. Sexton is the fulcrum of the Irish attack. They desperately need the veteran Leinster No 10 fit and firing in Japan. 

Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton

Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton

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A few weeks later, Schmidt would concede that the whole experience left his squad 'a bit broken'. His players would stutter past Scotland and before a callow French outift waved the white flag at the

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