Rugby World Cups have not been kind to Ireland and opening pool games have been a real mixed bag.
Sure, Ireland have won six of their eight opening games but all of those victories have come against second-tier opposition, with some wins more convincing than others.
Here, just to get everyone worried ahead of Sunday, are a number of the most memorable – and difficult – openers.
1987 – The Pale Moon Rose
Ireland 6-13 Wales
Ireland's participation in the inaugural World Cup was described as a 'disaster' in the papers of the day.
"The team was badly selected, badly prepared, badly organised and badly motivated," wrote David Walsh in the Sunday Tribune as the squad headed for home.
But the main thing history remembers is the sound of a dodgy recording of the Rose of Tralee wafting through the Wellington air.
If the IRFU had their way, there might be no Rugby World Cup at all. Or there wouldn't have been one in 1987, at any rate.
When the vote was taken among the members of the International Rugby Board in March 1985, the Irish union was one of only two to vote against, alongside the Scots.
Their primary fear was that the development of the World Cup might hasten the arrival of professionalism in the game. Hostility to creeping professionalism explains much of what the IRFU did in the 80s and early 90s.
When the competition rolled around, the union seemed to do their best to make sure that Ireland treated this World Cup business as a rinky dink novelty rather than a prospective blue riband event. (Think along the lines of that World Club Cup yoke that Alex Ferguson took Man United to play in down in Brazil all those years ago).
Ireland had a reasonable team still heavily populated by starlets from the 1985 Triple Crown winning outfit. They'd done okay in the 1987 Five Nations, hammering England 17-0 in the opener in Lansdowne Road and then winning in the Cardiff Arms Park.
But their preparation for the World Cup was poor. They had no warm-up games save for the traditional Blues v Whites selection game in Ravenhill.
This being 14 years before Roy Keane kicked up a fuss en route to Cyprus, the players dutifully sat in steerage for the 32-hour flight to New Zealand and then were sent out to train within an hour of touching down.
In an unwise fit of enthusiasm, beloved coach Mick 'Give it a Lash' Doyle decided to join in the training with the backs and promptly collapsed at the end of the session with a heart attack.
He would recover in time to cheerfully see out the tournament but was replaced by Jimmy Davidson before long.
Ireland and Wales would be the last to take to the field for the opening round of games. In those years, it was customary that Ireland forwent the national anthem business on foreign soil, thus escaping the thorny issue of the two jurisdictions representing the green.
However, they had sat around for the first few days of the World Cup watching the Tongans and the Samoans grip their chest and struggle back the tears as they belted out their national anthems and some players felt that Ireland needed something.
According to some tales, Syd Millar and co spent a frantic hour sampling various boisterous Irish tunes for their suitability, discarding them if they traversed either set of political sensibilities in the squad.
However, Donal Lenihan has the story in his book. The Munster lock who captained Ireland that summer insists that the Ulster players had no problem with Amhrán na bhFiann but at a lengthy meeting, a rather unsatisfactory compromise was dreamed up.
Prop Phil Orr dug a cassette tape out of his bag – James Last live in concert in Tralee from 1984. Last was a German composer awarded the dubious title 'King of Elevator Music' who is now best known in this country for being the man behind the Sunday Game theme tune.
At a gig in Tralee in ’84, he and his orchestra finished up with ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and ‘The Rose of Tralee’.
Incidentally, Last, who presumably knew of his special relevance to the Gaelic Games community, geed up the crowd by throwing on a Kerry top while the latter was being played.
Three years later, this recording would stand in for the Irish national anthem ahead of their first ever Rugby World Cup game.
"We didn’t even listen to the tape," Lenihan recalled.
Both teams apparently played as if they were set on discrediting the tournament before it ever got going. Among the two sets of players, there is wide consensus that it was one of the worst games of rugby ever played.
Ireland led early on but Mark Ring's second-half try settled the game in Wales's favour. The Irish team subsequently struggled by Canada and then were a little more impressive in dispatching Tonga in the final pool game.
Alan Jones’s Australia, with controversial future Irish international Brian Smith in the backs, ran riot against Ireland in the first half of the quarter-final. Hugo MacNeill and Michael Kiernan scored second-half tries as Ireland made a familiar late grab for a moral victory, one with which Mick Doyle was apparently content.
"We won the second half," he cheerfully told the sceptical press corps. Ireland’s World Cup story began as it would sadly go on – with a quarter-final exit.
As far as posterity is concerned however, the rest of the tournament was a mere footnote to the ‘Rose of Tralee’ getting a runout in Athletic Park.
1995 – Halpin flashes the bird
Ireland 19-43 New Zealand
Eight years on and anthems were again to the forefront. The IRFU figured they couldn’t have a repeat of the Rose of Tralee fiasco and so Phil Coulter was commissioned to write a song which wouldn’t offend anybody.
Once one excludes music critics, republicans, and much of the general public, he succeeded in doing that.
Ireland’s Call was premiered simultaneously on the Late Late Show and the Gerry Kelly show on UTV on the first Friday of April 1995, a month out from Ireland’s participation in the World Cup in South Africa.
Professionalism was again high on the agenda. The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked the last gasp of the shamateurism era.
Two months after Joel Stransky kicked a drop-goal to win the Webb Ellis trophy for South Africa, the game was formally declared open.
Ireland’s opening game was the toughest going. They would play Laurie Mains’ fearsome New Zealand side, who were again beginning to slip into their groove after a period in Australia’s shadow in the early 90s. And they had a secret weapon on the wing which they were about unleash on the world.
Once more, Ireland’s preparation wasn’t the best.
The Five Nations had been humdrum but fairly standard for the era. After losing their first three matches, they had beaten Wales in a wooden spoon decider in the Cardiff Arms Park, condemning the hosts to their second ever whitewash.
Worse than that, they had shaped up for the tournament by becoming the first top-eight team (The Five and Tri Nations) to lose to Italy, slumping to a 22-12 defeat in a warm-up game in Treviso in May. It should be noted that their cause was not helped by the team bus not showing up at the hotel beforehand.
In the circumstances, Ireland’s effort against the All Blacks wasn’t bad. We started in dreamland.
Gary Halpin powered over from ten yards after steaming onto a free-kick pass from Michael Bradley. Even more memorable is what happened next.
As Halpin was hauled to his feet by his team-mates, he turned and gave the middle fingers to the New Zealand players on the line.
"Sean Fitzpatrick had been winding us up, calling us Paddies," Halpin said years later. "And I couldn’t really believe I’d actually scored a try.
"It was a rather stupid thing to do, being a teacher and all… But I dined out on it like a lord. That was when I discovered the South Africans hated the Kiwis more than anyone."
Ireland would score another couple of tries, impressively worked efforts finished off by back rowers Dennis McBride and David Corkery.
However, in the midst of that, they shipped half a dozen down the other end with the beast on the wing running riot.
From today’s perspective, watching Jonah Lomu contemptuously shunt Irish tacklers out of the way is like looking at a modern, hulk-like professional rugby player swat away the baggy-jerseyed solicitors and doctors of yesteryear. Or else it’s like looking at a kid who’s mysteriously been planted in an age grade about three years too young for him.
He scored two tries himself and laid one on a plate for Zinzan Brooke after an astonishing run down the left wing in which he shrugged off about four attempted tackles.
Lomu had only played twice for New Zealand at that point - in the previous year’s tests against France. He hadn’t impressed in either game and the All Blacks lost both matches (the famous ‘End of the World’ try deciding the latter).
Thus it could be said that it was against Ireland that he really made his opening bow.
For the IRFU, the tournament was regarded as a success as the Irish ground out a one-point win over Wales in Johannesburg in the final pool game to reach the last-eight. Needless to say, they would go no further.
2007 – ‘NAM-IB-I-A. Like, hello?’
Ireland 32-17 Namibia
There are bad World Cups that elicit a sigh of disappointment. And there are bad World Cups which prompt the governing body to commission a Genesis report investigating what went wrong.
The 2007 World Cup was of course the latter. One of the most hotly-anticipated World Cups from an Irish perspective turned out to be the most traumatic.
The spectre of it is invoked whenever a previously successful Irish team appears to stumble or look out of sorts in the lead-up, as we’ve seen only this summer.
Eddie O'Sullivan was regarded as a reasonably successful Irish coach up to that point but his entire seven-year long reign wound up being blighted by that farrago. Such was the fallout that his previous few years in charge were subsequently re-framed in a harsher light.
Despite a couple of worrying wobbles in the warm-up matches, most fans were blithely confident that Ireland would shake off the cobwebs once the real business started.
Namibia were first up and were naturally assumed to be easy prey.
This was the height of Celtic Tiger era complacency, the Irish rugby team were used to winning and rugby had become hugely fashionable, its support base broadening massively in the early 21st century.
A huge Irish contingent was expected and duly arrived in the south of France for the early pool games.
A scratchy 32-17 win over Namibia was not what was promised. Brian O'Driscoll seemed to have set Ireland on their way with an early try, Andrew Trimble added another about ten minutes later but thereafter they got bogged down. Rather than stretching out their advantage as anticipated, Ireland actually grew worse as the game wore on. A la Mick Doyle’s team in ’87, the Namibians won the second half.
Miriam Lord's Irish Times colour piece from Bordeaux the day after the match perhaps best captured the spirit of the time.
"The sense of affronted surprise at how things went was best summed up by a young blonde woman, calling home on her slim, pink, crystal-studded mobile phone: 'Namibia, Dad. NAM-IB-I-A. Like, hello?'"
Alas, Namibia proved to be close to the high point. A week later, during the panic stricken closing stages of the Georgia match, Irish fans would look back nostalgically on the Namibia game and realise that at least we took a bonus point.
In the end, the losses to France and Argentina were no great surprise and one of the most hyped Irish outfits ever to leave for a World Cup exited in the group phase.
Brian O'Driscoll, mystified like the rest of the team, offered bitter reflections in his autobiography.
"It's like we've spent the best part of four years preparing to be tested at the highest level, then some imposters have gone in and sat the examinations."
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