Ireland’s depleted and derided Rugby World Cup squad will join forces to prove their critics wrong in a seven week adventure beginning today.
That was the message from defiant skipper Brian O'Driscoll and under-fire coach Declan Kidney as their Irish team, including five Ulster players, boarded the first of four flights to New Zealand from Dublin last night. Only 28 of the 30-man squad took off on their arduous 36-hour long haul journey, via London, Dubai and Sydney and when they touch down in Queenstown at some point tonight they will be just eight days from World Cup lift off.
Gordon D'Arcy has joined Cian Healy in staying behind after he picked up a calf strain during recovery on Monday.
He is set to fly out tomorrow, with Healy making the trip on Saturday.
O'Driscoll confirmed that he expects to play a full part in what will be his fourth and last World Cup after sitting out Saturday's defeat to England as a precaution against aggravating a shoulder injury.
Ireland's woeful World Cup record was referenced by both captain and coach Declan Kidney ahead of departure — in 25 clashes with top-tier Six or Tri-Nations teams in the World Cup, only twice have the men in green come out on top.
O'Driscoll wants to improve his own record this time around and he believes, despite the four warm-up defeats, that he can do so.
“I've been involved in three World Cups and I've got one quarter-final out of it,” O’Driscoll said.
“I wouldn't say that's anything to shout about and don't want to finish my career having not achieved on the biggest stage.
“It is the biggest stage in world rugby and a chance to make your mark. You play like it is your last game and some of the perceived minnows will think there are scalps to be had in this group and we will have to be on our guard.
“This is my last one and I am not going to look back in five or 10 years and wish that I had been into it a bit more.”
The Leinster centre believes that while Ireland need to improve from their warm-up games, but he stressed that pre-season clashes cannot be held up as examples of form.
Test match rugby, he says, is different. “Listen, pre-season games are very different to World Cups,” he said. “People just expect you to pick up after having a four-week holiday and a pre-season and it doesn't happen like that.
“You have to play your way into form. Very rarely do you see any team in the world in their first match together playing brilliant rugby.”
O'Driscoll believes that Ireland “definitely got a lot of more match fitness under our belts” than they did four years ago and Kidney believes that his side are prepared for battle.
“I took a look at the fixtures and what the players needed and I said, ‘let's go in at the deep end, and let's go in against the teams that you'd know will be knocking on the door for the title',” he said.
“Ireland have played 25 fixtures in the World Cup, 14 of them have been against Six Nations, Tri-Nations sides and Argentina. Of the 14 we've only got two wins under our belt.
“That shows how difficult these championships are. We had a one-point win against Argentina and a one-point win against Wales, maybe 16 years ago (in 1995).
“So when you get here you're playing teams that are right at the pinnacle. France and England played good Cup rugby, put us under a lot of pressure, we leaked a score or two and didn't get them back.
“But that's where I think we'll benefit from it. It's not a case of changing the gameplan, it's just about adapting to Cup rugby.”