Cape Town - Ireland enter the Rugby World Cup as the champions of Europe, although recent performances suggest Joe Schmidt's team may struggle to match the hype.
Four years ago, Ireland peaked early by beating Australia in the group stage and topping their pool before losing to Wales in the quarter-finals.
But following back-to-back Six Nations titles, and eye-catching wins last year against South Africa and Australia, hopes have been significantly raised this time that Schmidt's team can reach their first World Cup semi-final — and perhaps more.
Error-strewn warm-up losses to Wales and England, however, have given the players plenty to reconsider before facing Canada in its tournament opener on Sept. 19.
"I wouldn't say alarm bells will be ringing, but we're very disappointed," Paul O'Connell, Ireland's veteran lock and captain, said after the loss to England.
The Irish had a whopping 22 missed tackles in that match, and several clumsy turnovers gifted the momentum back to their opposition.
It was hard to see this coming when Ireland began their warm-up campaign with four tries in a 35-21 win away at Wales. Four more tries against the Scots came a week later but, again, Ireland's defence conceded too much in the second half in a 28-22 win. Those second-half woes struck again when Ireland lost at home for the first time since November 2013 in a 16-10 reverse to Wales — with the sides level at half time.
"In the last three games we've fallen short in a lot of the things that we need to do to create a result," O'Connell said.
Concentration, clearly, has not been good enough, and the free-flowing passing that was the hallmark of Ireland's Six Nations triumphs has been lacking.
Schmidt needs his key players to respond quickly. He worked with flanker Sean O'Brien, No. 8 Jamie Heaslip, fullback Rob Kearney and flyhalf Jonathan Sexton as coach of Leinster from 2010-13, helping the club win the European Cup in 2011 and 2012.
Ireland's opener against Canada is a good chance to restore shaken confidence, and it should see Sexton pass 500 points in Test rugby, while the following match against Romania should be a points bonanza.
A tougher test against the Italians will follow that. As usual, the Azzurri will likely be provocative in the scrum and dangerous on the break, but should at least provide a thorough rehearsal for Schimdt's team before facing France's huge pack and burly midfield on October 11. Seeking a first win in five against the Irish, the French will be even more motivated.
Whoever wins in Cardiff likely tops Pool D, and avoids an expected showdown with feared title holders New Zealand in the quarter-finals.