Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ghosts of ‘07 still haunt Ireland

Wales captain Sam Warburton

Almost there - Rugby World Cup 2011. The rhetoric has been strong and every coach has publicly stated that their players are absolutely ready to go and have never been fitter, faster or stronger.

Maybe, but not every team can be successful, and the Northern Hemisphere teams launch their respective efforts with differing prospects.

Of all the sides who will arrive in New Zealand with smiles on their faces, it is surely Wales.

After a string of consistently poor finishing positions in the Six Nations, they appear to have rediscovered their mojo.

With a terrific new captain in Sam Warburton, they were able to take positives from each of their three warm-up games.

The Welsh brand of rugby is based around the traditional ability to score tries, and that requires confidence.

However, while their ball-playing ability might well pose questions for most defences, Wales’ biggest issue is the amount of possession they can secure over 80 minutes.

Their problem are the foundations, ie the set-piece. The loss of Matthew Rees has hit Wales hard at scrumtime, lineouts may be more of a struggle, and the forwards are simply not big enough to dominate the tight exchanges against the top sides.

It is no coincidence that Warren Gatland has put strength at the centre of his preparation. Thus, it has to be fast and furious in order to pull the bigger sides around the field.

And it doesn’t come much bigger than the opening game against South Africa – a genuine litmus test of how far Wales have come over the summer.

Can Gatland’s men win enough ball to release their backline? If not, can they maximise limited chances?

This could be one of the matches of the tournament, and the ‘Boks are as vulnerable as they are ever going to be on the eve of a World Cup.

With a 100% record in their warm-up games, Scotland will travel in hope. However, I expect this to be short-lived. They will always make life difficult but they have a triple problem.

The pack is not big enough to trouble sides, unlike Wales, the threequarters are not creative enough to take limited chances, and they are in a tough group with England and Argentina. Quarter-finals will be an achievement.

England could feasibly make it to the semi-finals without playing too much rugby.

With a big pack and solid set-piece, they will be a test for most up front, but there is a lack of dynamism and creativity in the middle five (back row, 10 and 12) and this could stifle scoring chances for the back three.

I expect Jonny Wilkinson to be charged to keep the scoreboard ticking over — it will be good enough for the quarters and maybe even the semis, but England are a long way off being good enough to lift the trophy. But, Manu Tuilagi might have something to say about that.

France, aka the enigma, have shown moments of real magic against Ireland.

When they decide to turn up for a game, they are a genuine tour de force and can challenge the best sides in the world.

The question is whether they can perform over six weeks, never mind over 80 minutes. With so many players sticking their hands up for selection, will the right combinations be on the pitch? Only Marc Lievremont knows.

Finally, to Ireland. And, really, who knows?

As supporters, we are nervous. As Donncha O’Callaghan admitted recently, the spectre of 2007 still hangs over those who were in France four years ago.

The tournament will either be an enormous anti-climax, or we really will have something to cheer about.

Russia and USA may be superpowers in economic terms, but not on the rugby pitch.

The former will be well-structured but low on gamebreakers. USA will have plenty of energy but be low on technique — I expect a 50-pointer this weekend.

Should Ireland overcome Australia, it could be something special. Lose and I expect a scrappy, close and unedifying win over Italy.

A quarter-final against Wales would keep us watching, but I fear South Africa would send Brian O’Driscoll home without the one thing he craves — tangible RWC success.

Let’s dispatch the USA first and take it from there.

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