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Rugby World Cup: Irish hope to avoid World of heartache

By Niall Crozier

Ulster and Ireland are hoping that the 2011 World Cup proves a lot more productive than was the case four years ago.

The 2007 showpiece proved disastrous for both.

Ultimately it cost Eddie O’Sullivan his job as Ireland coach. His much-fancied side’s abysmal flop in France, where they failed to get out of their group, was followed by an ignominious Six Nations campaign in which they finished fourth.

O’Sullivan’s Ulster counterpart, Mark McCall, also paid the price. During the World Cup his side struggled horrendously in the Magners League en route to a second-bottom finish. He resigned in November 2007.

The World Cup means Ulster could be without a number of their star players for the first one-third of the RaboDirect PRO12 series which kicks off on September 2.

That will make it difficult for them to better — or even match — the heroics of 2010/11 when they finished third in the Magners League as was and reached the last eight of the Heineken Cup.

Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace are likely to be on Irish duty. Ruan Pienaar will be away with South Africa, the holders, while newcomer, tighthead John Afoa, is a key member of the All Blacks squad. And Simon Danielli is required by Scotland.

Their return dates depend on just how far their nations go, though with the All Blacks, Springboks and Ireland ranked one, two and four in the world respectively, they are tipped to reach the quarter-finals at least.

Those are scheduled for October 8/9 with the semis taking place a week later.

The final is on October 23, a full seven weeks after the start of the RaboDirect PRO12.

In the interim, Ulster — like everybody else — will just have to cope and then adapt to the return of their absentees for the first and second of the Heineken Cup group stage matches, at home to Clermont and away to Leicester on November 12 and November 19 respectively.

Having accommodated a World Cup and the start of the Heineken-sponsored European showpiece in which the penultimate and then final group stage matches will be played on January 13/15 and January 20/22, the PRO12 runners then face their third big test — absorption of the annual Six Nations Championship-shaped blow.

And in the light of experience, it would be rash to hazard a guess as to what the state of play might be by the time that comes round.

What is known is that four years ago the Irish squad which struggled so horribly in France included eight Ulstermen, namely Simon Best, Rory Best, Bryan Young, Neil Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble, Isaac Boss and Paddy Wallace.

But there was little consolation in that; Ireland barely used them while Ulster struggled without them.

For three of the eight, it was a complete non-event. Ferris never even made the bench and although Young did when he was promoted for the final pool game against Argentina following Simon Best’s health scare, he was not deployed.

Wallace’s World Cup amounted to an 80th minute introduction in the opener against against Namibia, while Boss — a replacement in all four matches — was only called upon twice.

Both Simon Best and Neil Best made late appearances against Namibia, Georgia and France, with the latter ticking the last of his played-in-all-four-games boxes by facing the Pumas in the final pool match, by which stage the former was in hospital following the health fright which ultimately ended his playing career.

Best’s brother Rory began in the first two matches against Namibia and Georgia and was a replacement in Ireland’s exit-confirming showdown with Argentina, a game in which not a single Ulsterman made the starting line-up.

Trimble, like Rory Best, made two starts. Having scored against Namibia he was then included against the French, the only Ulsterman on the pitch at kick-off.

Back home, meanwhile, depleted Ulster’s performances were abject, for after beating Ospreys in their Magners League opener they then lost the next three matches before ending that grim sequence by drawing with understrength Leinster.

There followed another hat-trick of defeats, the last two of which were in the Heineken Cup.

Finally, after a nine-week wait for a win, Ulster beat Connacht in Galway.

But it was a false dawn; defeat in each of their next four outings meant that by the turn of the year Ulster’s record for the season to that point was a dismal played 13, won two, drawn one, lost 10.

With the benefit of 2007 World Cup hindsight, both Ireland and Ulster will be very keen to ensure history does not repeat itself.

Belfast Telegraph

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