By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - When Ireland beat New Zealand for the second time in three meetings last November, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen labelled the then Six Nations champions World Cup favourites.
What a difference 10 months can make.
Few are tipping Ireland to go all the way in Japan now after a limp Six Nations defence, some misfiring performances from key players and the recent record defeat to England - albeit with the rather large caveat that it was just a warm up game.
As if to add to the confusion over what to expect, World Rugby's often odd ranking system put Joe Schmidt's men top of the pile for the first time after Saturday's 19-10 victory over Wales.
Captain Rory Best's assessment before that performance that his side knew they were never as good as some said they were, nor as bad as others recently proclaimed, seems a fair one.
Suddenly being unfancied may also just suit a team who had sent expectation levels into overdrive a year ago.
Experienced men like Best, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony will need to return to their international form of 2018 if Ireland are to avoid a potentially tricky pool that includes Scotland and Japan turning into a nightmare.
The 2018 Grand Slam winners went back to what they know best on Saturday, using powerful one-off runners and dominance at the breakdown to strangle their opponents into submission.
While Wales coach Warren Gatland noted that his side were rarely troubled out wide, such physical displays have been good enough to beat each of the world's top eight sides over the past two years.
Ireland also travel with by far their strongest side.
A squad that feels it can afford to leave the highly dependable Devin Toner at home is clearly one packed with proven talent in depth.
Comfortingly, that means Ireland are unlikely to be mortally wounded as they were four years ago when the loss of key players in the pool stages led to a swift exit in the knockouts.
They also have a potential player of the tournament in 23-year-old lock James Ryan.
Assuming they get there, whether Ireland are good enough to beat holders New Zealand or a resurgent South Africa to finally make it beyond a World Cup quarter-final is the big question.
Perhaps Schmidt's men have peaked a year too soon or the dominant nations of world rugby have just passed them back out over the past 12 months.
Or just maybe the team that outclassed New Zealand last year is still in there and then who knows.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)