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Rugby World Cup: Ireland must fire out warning that they are true title contenders

By Tony Ward

Back in the 1987 World Cup, I was aboard the good ship Ireland as we played Canada for the first time. The final scoreline of 46-19 in Dunedin would seem to indicate that we breezed home, but it was anything but a stroll.

Then, as now, we were in a different class to the Canadians, but having lost to Wales in our opening pool match, the heat was on. For the most part we played like a team that feared our fate.

By contrast the Canadians played for well over an hour like a team that believed they could defy the odds.

Our lineout struggled, we broke even at the scrum and with minimal attacking platform we failed to put the Canucks away until 27 points in the final 10 minutes put a most unfair gloss on the scoreboard ahead of our final group match against Tonga.

My abiding memory in the immediate aftermath was of skipper Donal Lenihan declaring how "incredibly nervous" we were.

My biggest fear today is that Ireland will succumb to fear.

In terms of organisation and skill, Joe Schmidt's men should be vastly superior to the Canadians. The scoreline should be every bit as convincing as it was when the sides met 28 years ago, and it should be more comfortable.

The players shouldn't be taking anything for granted, but if we are genuine in that aspiration of winning the World Cup, then we need to make a statement of intent.

The players will be nervous, that is natural. This is a different stage and the world will be watching. Schmidt fields a squad of full-time consummate professionals.

His opposite number, and fellow Kiwi, Kieran Crowley - a World Cup winner in '87 - doesn't quite enjoy such riches.

But fear can be a leveller. Expect that to be at the heart of the Canadian strategy. They are the underdogs with little to lose. The aim will to be deny Ireland primary possession, as their predecessors did all those years ago, and pressurise them into mistakes.

Schmidt's men must play with fire in the belly and ice in the mind. Winning is the minimum requirement; how we do so is just as important.

I wish we played our rugby like Leinster did when Schmidt was exploiting a gifted set of backs to the full. With Ireland he does not enjoy that luxury, but even within the limited game-plan cut to measure I would like to see a little more ambition.

Off-loading can involve a high risk, particularly when the pass is forced. But reading the moment does not have to be a gamble. If we really want to move to the next level (and a semi-final at least) then it is essential to expand our game beyond tactical percentages.

I don't want to hear any more of keeping our plays under wraps for what might lie ahead; instead, I want to see Ireland aim for a little more innovation and interplay in keeping the ball alive with tempo.

We keep hearing about the X factor players who could set this tournament alight, the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder, Israel Folau, Willie le Roux, Julian Savea, Jonathan Joseph, Nemani Nadolo, Anthony Watson and Wesley Fofana.

But we too possess players of that ilk. I am thinking of Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls. Craig Gilroy, too, who didn't even make the cut. So let's not sell ourselves short. The potential is there.

So what can we expect today? Schmidt has given it the full monty by picking his best available side, based on form.

The call between Earls and Zebo must have been close. I still feel that Zebo is the more natural left-sided player, with Earls more comfortable on the right.

That said, with Fitzgerald (at inside-centre) and Earls on board and with Zebo in reserve, Schmidt is utilising all three potential X factor players, and that suggests the coach is thinking of the bigger picture.

Dave Kearney for Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson for Devin Toner are two fair calls based on form in the warm-ups.

And while it is tough on Bowe and Toner to drop from the run-on XV to not making the match-day 23, again I think Schmidt has got it right in picking more versatile options on the bench.

With the exception of the injured Robbie Henshaw, this looks like the line-up that Schmidt would have picked were it the French next up.

If this selection delivers, it will be close to the line-up for bigger showdowns ahead.

In opposition is an amateur/professional selection minus star player and skipper Tyler Ardron. Providing the class of 2015 avoids the nerve element from '87, then the least we can expect is an Irish victory by a similar margin.

If we are genuine in that aspiration of winning the World Cup, we need to make a statement of intent this afternoon.

Belfast Telegraph


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