Ireland, the 8th best team in the World, kick off their RWC campaign next Saturday against plucky underdogs the USA ably coached by ex Irish supremo Eddie O’ Sullivan.
Ireland come into the tournament on the back of an August from hell. Four Warm up matches. Four Defeats. Players badly out of form. Selection looking flawed. Systems not working. Lack of cohesion amongst the players.
2007 deja vu?
In reality the situation sounds alarmingly like 2007. The difference then was that we refused to acknowledge our failings until too late in the day and surrendered meekly to Argentina and France in the Pool stage.
Ireland in 2007 blamed everybody and anybody bar themselves for their embarrassing capitulation. “The Golden Generation” succumbed not to the mighty All Blacks nor the Champion Springbok side but instead blamed dodgy Hotel food in a hotel in Bordeaux and poor preparation generally for their downfall. The team of O’ Driscoll, O’ Gara, Horgan, Stringer and co were all in their peak. Mid twenties, tonnes of international experience and buckets of International caps between them.
The team however seemed ill-equipped to adapt to the intensity of Cup competition and did not adapt at all well to the Referees interpretation of the rules. Ironically, the Garryowen and the Maul were de rigeuer at the World Cup in 2007. England and Argentina adapted best to the situation and finished 2nd and 3rd respectively with a ruthlessly practical style of play whilst the South Africans blasted their way to the Webb Ellis trophy. Ireland meanwhile exited early and persisted with an ill advised expansive game plan which backfired spectacularly.
One wonders if Ireland have learned any lessons since 2007? Or will the same bellyaching be heard from the players about a lack of preparation and poor hotel facilities be heard? One thing is for sure and that is that the Irish fan will not tolerate these kind of excuses again. Full blooded commitment, passion and intensity are the least that we can expect from this or any Irish side.
How then can Ireland avoid another calamity in this World Cup?
It is perhaps a true-ism but the key to avoiding calamity is to play to our strengths. Have we been doing this of late? The results speak for themselves. What then are our strengths you may ask? The backs coached by Alan Gaffney must utilise the class of Bowe and O’ Driscoll. Ireland’s greatest player O’ Driscoll has been criminally underused in attack in recent times. Delivery has been ponderous from the scrum half (regardless of who is picked) and our out half also seems to be kicking towards the corner on all ocassions in spite of the fact that our line out is not of the top drawer anymore.
Cup rugby demands that points are put on the board. As an Irish fan I would be delighted if we settled into games by kicking our points before then going on to play expansive rugby once early nerves have been settled.
A further problem for the Irish side has been at the breakdown. The loss of Wallace is incalculable but what it may do is result in the promotion of Shane Jennings to the Number 7 jersey. Jennings brings different qualities to the role than the ball carrying dynamism of Wallace but it remains to be seen how he will fare against the unparalleled abilities of David Pocock of Australia.
Another point of concern for Ireland is our seeming inability to clear out at ruck time to allow clean possession for our backs. Paul O’ Connell acknowledged as much after our dispiriting defeat to England at Lansdowne Road last week. Other teams are masters at this dark art of clearing out at ruck time and do so by fair or by foul means seemingly without being penalized. Ireland however have yet to grasp it and need to do so immediately to secure time for the backs to work their magic.
How far will Ireland go?
The sad reality is that if Ireland play to their best and the Wallabies do likewise, then the Wallabies will win. I fully expect Ireland to take care of the Russians and American Eagles comfortably. That then leaves us facing a winner takes all game against Italy in Dunedin for a second qualifying berth from the Pool. On paper at least we have a lot more to offer than the one dimensional Italians but this match will be a war of attrition and there are no guarantees we will prevail. In the event that we do then the defending champions South Africa await us.
Sadly a Quarter Final place is where our ambitions will end in this tournament. A win against South Africa or Australia needs to be achieved for a semi final berth to be achieved. At the moment that seems highly improbable. The Southern Hemisphere teams are at home and the final more than likely will be contested between two of them.
Prediction for Ireland: Quarter Final heartache against South Africa