Why Irish eyes can smile at the Rugby World Cup
With the RBS Six Nations now over, the countdown to the 2011 World Cup is under way.
In New Zealand on Sunday, September 11, Ireland will launch their bid for the William Webb Ellis Trophy with a Pool C outing against the United States at Yarrow Stadium.
That will be followed by matches against Australia, Russia and Italy.
Now back up to fourth in the world in the International Rugby Board’s rankings, Ireland will travel to the Land of the Long White Cloud with the tag of the northern hemisphere’s best side.
For many of the Irish side this will be their final World Cup appearance.
So how far might they go? Certainly a semi-final place is not beyond them.
Here are five good reasons why.
1 THE O’DRISCOLL FACTOR
Brian O’Driscoll is, quite simply, the best number 13 in world rugby. He is the total footballer — awesome is defence, brilliant in attack, a tackler par excellence, a midfield finisher without without equal.
O’Driscoll is a phenomenal player who, having been blessed with inherent ability, has maximised that gift by augmenting it with a remarkable work ethic. BOD provides outstanding proof of the power of nature and nurture.
Such is the standard he demands of himself as an individual and, as a collective, the team he leads that he neither gives nor accepts less than 100 per cent. And with the eyes of the world on him and Ireland in New Zealand come September/October he can be relied upon not to disappoint.
2 LAST CHANCE SALOON
With the painful memories of Ireland’s wretched performance in the 2007 World Cup added to the fact that for so many of the current team this will be their final appearance on the big stage, the Irish will lack nothing in terms of motivation.
The Golden Generation — the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, David Wallace, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy, Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter Stringer and Paddy Wallace — know this will be their last chance of World Cup glory for which reason they all want to exit on a high.
Between them they have enjoyed Magners League, Heineken Cup, Triple Crown and Grand Slam successes. But this, the biggest prize of all, is one they have not got close to winning . . . yet.
3 SQUAD STRENGTH
Since becoming Irish coach in July 2008, Declan Kidney’s primary objective has been to develop a squad with genuine strength in depth.
He has succeeded; undoubtedly the Irish pool now is deeper than before with the likes of Fergus McFadden and Sean O’Brien blooded in a Six Nations series, a new front row bedded in and scrummaging well, options at half-back and in the back three where Andrew Trimble shone against England when given his chance.
With Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald adaptable, veterans like Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara and Leo Cullen on hand, talent like McFadden and O’Brien pressing and big names like Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy — all three of whom missed the entire Six Nations series — still to come back into the reckoning, Ireland now have cover.
4 FORWARD POWER
Ireland’s demolition of England on Saturday was built on set piece superiority.
The Irish scrum was outstanding and quite apart from its strength what was highly significant was that the front three now appear to have got to grips with the four-phase procedure. No cheap penalties and frees.
Paul O’Connell’s return to full fitness after his long injury lay-off finally saw him back to his magnificent best, as were Donncha O’Callaghan, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace.
To those four Lions add a fifth in Stephen Ferris who, having missed the entire Six Nations, should have energy in abundance come September.
The pace of the Irish pack about the park, their recycling, their ability to hunt and — legally — slow down opposition ball are huge plusses.
5 OPPOSITION UP FOR GRABS
The draw could see Ireland go a very long way in New Zealand.
Ireland should beat the Italians in what will be their final Pool C match. Ahead of that the Irish meet the United States, Australia and Russia.
Should they win their group, Ireland’s reward would be to play the runners-up in Pool D — Fiji, Namibia, South Africa and Wales — in the quarter-finals with the Welsh likely to take that spot.
If, as is more likely, Ireland finish as Pool C runners-up to Australia, they would then face the Pool D winners, probably South Africa.
In their last two pairings with the Springboks — both in Dublin — Ireland won 15-10 (November 2009) and lost 23-21 (November 2010). Currently South Africa are ranked third and Ireland fourth.
Ireland's road to New Zealand
Sunday, August 6: Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield)
Saturday, August 13: France v Ireland (Chaban-Delmas)
Saturday, August 20: Ireland v France (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, August 27: Ireland v England (Aviva Stadium)
World Cup Pool C
Sunday, September 11: v US (Yarrow Stadium)
Saturday, September 17: v Australia (Eden Park)
Sunday, September 25: v Russia (International Stadium)
Sunday, October 2: v Italy (Forsyth Barr Stadium)