Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport

Rugby World Cup: We're up and running at last... and long haul will be worth it

By Jonathan Bradley

As World Cup build-ups go, this one has had it all. From heartbreaking late injuries to selection controversy and mounting fears that escalating costs mean by the time the final rolls around fans will have to take out a second mortgage in order to afford a pint and a burger.

Yes, it really has had everything... apart from games that matter.

With the phoney war of the warm-up Tests now mercifully in the rear-view mirror, we're finally down to the contests that count with England against Fiji at Twickenham first up this evening.

As host nation, England find themselves under considerable pressure and questions remain about the side Stuart Lancaster (pictured) has assembled in the four years since they scampered home under a cloud from the 2011 tournament in New Zealand.

The emphasis placed on character by their coach means that the "dwarf tossing" scandal is unlikely to be repeated and England's issues are to be played out on the field.

The loss of three key members of the Welsh starting side - Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies - has made the Pool of Death seem a little less fatal.

But with a resurgent Australia also in the mix matters will still be testing.

Without an established midfield pairing and a back-row that still has its detractors, it's hard to see England lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, even if a wave of home support does take them deep into the tournament.

New Zealand remain the team to beat, their strength in depth seeing them leave some frightfully talented players at home, but if they are to become the first team to retain the trophy they will need to overcome a travel sickness that has prevented them winning the competition on foreign soil.

The aging core of a South Africa side that was successful back in 2007, along with emerging youngsters like Jesse Kriel and Handre Pollard, will, of course, also be there and much as they'd like to in Ireland, one should never take the French challenge lightly.

And what of Joe Schmidt's men?

Travelling fans and those left at home to wonder just which of England's 2003 squad hasn't become a television pundit, are all dreaming of a first semi-final berth at the very least, but the man in charge is keen to look no further than tomorrow's meeting with Canada.

It's an understandable stance and few countries have provided a better example of the idea that pride comes before a fall than Ireland back in 2007.

The 'Golden Generation' were bullish about their prospects of tasting glory out in France…that was until the less than traditional rugby forces of Namibia and Georgia proved slightly sterner opposition than was expected.

Deep down, however, Schmidt, who has ceaselessly succeeded since he arrived on these shores, must be daring to dream.

In World Cups gone by, the keys to success can broadly be said to centre around a canny coach, a forceful leader and half-backs that can execute a game-plan.

In Schmidt, Ireland have a man considered by many to be the best in the business.

The mastermind behind the European triumphs of Leinster at the turn of the decade who went on to secure two Six Nations championships in as many years, is it any wonder many think his native New Zealand will one day come calling?

For leadership, Paul O'Connell is a driving force fit for any side, even if the totemic lock is approaching his final days in an Ireland shirt while Rory Best is on hand to offer further experience.

A veteran of three World Cups, he was there for the misadventure of 2007 and will be just as keen to downplay prospects of success as his coach.

If the glory of the past two seasons was initiated by Schmidt's move into the top job, then on the field there has been no more significant figure than Johnny Sexton.

Often appearing to seek solace in the green of Ireland during a mixed spell in the Top14, the out-half is an ever-willing lieutenant for his coach, able to carry out his game-plan to the letter and combining well with Conor Murray, a fellow world class talent at Schmidt's disposal.

More will come into play and, as the camp have stressed, little can be gained from looking too far down the tracks, but in these key areas Ireland are primed for their longest run in the tournament.

Will it all add up to a recipe for success? We'll soon find out. Seven weeks of rugby lie ahead. It's a long haul but you'll love it.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph