It’s ‘State of the Nation’ time again and in this post we take a look at Ireland. After back-to-back Six Nations titles, they were favourites to reach at least the last four…but have they peaked too soon?
The tale of Ireland’s history in the Rugby World Cup is one of underachievement. It’s one of what might have been (possibly what should have been) given the players at their disposal. The 2007 edition, for example, was meant to be the tournament where Ireland’s ‘Golden Generation’ lit up the international stage, but a set of scrappy displays saw them knocked out in the pool. In 2011, a historic win against Australia in their group match led to much anticipation that this could be their year, but a poor showing against an inspired Wales led to more World Cup heartache. Irish fans will be hoping that 2015 doesn’t lead to more of the same.
You would suspect that disappointment on that kind of scale is unlikely this time around given that the Irish won the Six Nations both this year and last, but recent warm-up losses to Wales and England have taken the sheen of Joe Schmidt’s (up until now) fine Irish record. The stark reality is this: given Ireland’s recent successes, anything less than a semi-final place in this World Cup will be judged as a failure. A couple of months back you would have thought that a place in the last four was a certainty. Can we be so sure?
This comment has been made about Pool A, but it certainty rings true in Ireland’s Pool D also: winning the group is everything. Why? Because the runner-up in Pool D is likely to face the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. This should spell game over for that luckless opponent. Of course we should remind ourselves of just how close Ireland came to beating New Zealand in that pulsating match in Dublin back in 2013. In many ways it was that thriller of a game that provided the platform for their Six Nations success as well as the southern hemisphere scalps of Australia and South Africa in 2014. But the fact still remains that the Irish have never beaten the All Blacks. They will not want to start thinking of reversing that trend until at least the final.
So if Ireland are to win Pool D and, indeed, make that semi-final what do they have to do? First of all they will have to see off Canada and Romania and see them off well – no room for the slow start they experienced in 2007 against the tournament’s minnows. They then face Italy at the Olympic Stadium before meeting France at the Millennium. Here at Red Rugby we cannot see Ireland losing to the Italians. They may have had a couple of shaky results in recent weeks but they are still too good for a one-dimensional Italian side. The main test will come against the French. Here’s the good news for Irish readers: Ireland have not lost to France since 2011. Here’s the bad news: of the four meetings since then, two have been wins by less than a score while the other two have been draws. I.e. these matches are always close. There are also, dare we say it, suggestions the French may be finally turning their ship around. Are these two teams going in opposite directions?
Here’s a few reasons why those thoughts may be a little premature. Ireland have got an excellent half-back pairing in the shape(s) of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton. If those two are on form, Ireland’s kicking game is second-to-none. They also have a beast in the engine room – the great Paul O’Connell. He may well be partnered in the second-row by Iain Henderson who looks in great form. Their solidity at line-out, paired with the accurate kicking, will always give Ireland a platform. The back row of O’Mahony, Heaslip and O’Brien is one of the best in the world. In the backs, the likes of Zebo, Rob Kearney and Bowe are enough to make any opposition wince. If there is a weakness, it could be in their front row and they’ll be hoping Cian Healy comes back to form quickly following long-term injury. If he does, this Irish side (on paper at least) looks very hard to beat. It certainly looks good enough to beat a French side still draped in some uncertainty. If that happens, Argentina probably await. Ireland haven’t lost to them since 2007. Suddenly the semi-finals look possible once again.
There may have been a few creaks recently but two straight losses to England and Wales will be quickly written off in the next few weeks with two wins against lowlier opposition in the pool. Ireland will get back on the horse quick enough…just in time for the tests against Italy and France.
Don’t write them off just yet.