Ireland’s World Cup preparations have been taking place somewhat beneath the radar over the last couple of months, and some may have forgotten the challenge they pose to the southern hemisphere giants.
Eddie O’Sullivan’s top players were rested in June whilst a squad of hopefuls were taken on a gruelling tour of Argentina, where they lost both Test matches against the Pumas. The players have all since been to Spala in Poland for a training camp, and are now gathered in Limerick preparing for warm-up games with Scotland and Italy, where they seem to be keeping themselves to themselves.
Despite facing the grim prospect of the World Cup Group of Death, Ireland may represent the Northern Hemisphere’s greatest chance of success in France. The hosts themselves are contenders, but are frustratingly inconsistent, whilst everyone knows how far England have fallen since 2003. Ireland on the other hand have consistently been the stongest side in the Six Nations, and have claimed impressive victories over South Africa and Australia.
Ireland has won three Triple Crowns in the last four years, and came achingly close to a Grand Slam in this year’s competition. Indeed, their last-gasp defeat to France typifies their one weakness – the inability to sustain their performance for 80 minutes.
At the heart of Ireland’s team is arugably the best centre partnership in the world – Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. The pair have played with or against each other since their schooldays, and they complement each other perfectly. Moreover, defences often commit two players to tackling the elusive O’Driscoll, creating additional space for D’Arcy’s light feet and turn of speed.
There is strength all around them in the Irish backline. Inside, the experienced half-back partnership of Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara have learned how to control matches, whilst outside there are fliers like Denis Hickie and Geordan Murphy with superb finishing abilities.
To compete with France and Argentina, not to mention South Africa and New Zealand, Ireland’s pack will have to be at its best. Paul O’Connell, the talismanic lock, must lead the forwards with his exemplary work rate, whilst quality players like Simon Easterby, Denis Leamy and David Wallace must follow.
Against England in this year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s forwards were outstanding, ruthless at the breakdown and forcing turnovers upon which their backs could capitalise. Against France, it was the same story for 50 minutes, but they failed to close out the match and let France in to steal victory – something they cannot afford to do against quality opposition.
Their seemingly unlucky draw in the same pool as Argentina and France may work in their favour. They will be looking for revenge against the French, who may capitulate under the pressure of their fickle supporters, whilst they will want to restore order against Argentina who beat their second string this summer, and who will give their pack a stern test.
If Ireland can win this difficult group, they will reach the last eight battle-hardened and no match for Scotland or Italy, the likely runners-up in Pool C. From there, two big performances and O’Driscoll could be lifting the World Cup, but South Africa and New Zealand will probably stand in their way. Ireland will need the inner belief that they can sustain a world-class performance against the best teams, that their forwards are as big and ferocious as their southern hemisphere counterparts, and that their backs have both the devastating finishing skills and the defensive solidarity.
It’s a tall order, but perhaps Ireland’s low key build up away from the media spotlight will help them to build their collective confidence and maybe this is the calm before the emerald storm.
By James Hutchison