independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

O'Driscoll backs Irish to avoid All Blacks collision

Brian O'Driscoll and Declan Kidney

THE good news is that Ireland's initial challenge will be forthcoming from European opposition known intimately to them.

France and Italy won't present Ireland with anything unexpected – three Six Nations matches against both before the kick-off of World Cup 2015 will ensure that.

Certainly, Ireland will be delighted to have avoided southern hemisphere opposition, even if the principals who represented the IRFU at the draw in London were deliberately low-key.

The reality is that Ireland can win the pool even if they will have to hit a peak of form and performance to do so. Remember, they have never beaten France in the World Cup

Indeed, when it is considered that France have topped their pool five times – 2015 will be the eighth World Cup – it brings the enormity of the challenge facing Ireland, and indeed Italy, into sharp focus.

Ireland's pool is likely to be completed by America or Canada and one of Georgia, Russia and Romania.

France are one of the true aristocrats of world rugby. They contested the final of the inaugural tournament back in 1987 and were, in the eyes of some, harshly denied a first ever final triumph last year. They will, without question, be overwhelming favourites to top Pool D.

That means, logically, that Ireland and Italy will be left scrapping for the runner-up spot. The rather dubious reward for that achievement will, if other results go to script, be a likely quarter-final clash with New Zealand.

The All Blacks will be expected to top Pool C ahead of Argentina in second place. The winner of Pool D would then qualify to play Argentina, a far more palatable scenario.

drawn

Declan Kidney, who declined to be drawn on whether or not he will be in charge in 2015, wasn't keen on looking too far ahead.

"I think for Ireland we shouldn't go above ourselves; getting out of the pool is always a big step," said the pragmatic coach. "There have been times we haven't got to the quarter-final. That's why I say we should not go beyond ourselves.

"And that's where the order of the matches is quite important because trying to pick the strategy of being able to get out of it; we were able to rest guys between Australia and Italy in that two-week gap (in 2011).

"Italy had to play maybe 10 or 11 players against America five days before they played us, and if you look at the way that match went, it was the last 20 minutes that we went away with it."

Brian O'Driscoll highlighted the fact that the draw had to be looked upon as a favourable one, given that Ireland avoided southern hemisphere opposition in Pool D.

"It could have been a hell of a lot worse," said O'Driscoll. "There's a flip side to it too. If you drew New Zealand in our pool and France in Pool C, you're potentially looking at France in the quarter-finals as opposed to playing New Zealand in a quarter-final by coming second.

"So it's double-edged but we can beat all the teams in our pool and a few of them could beat us so, like Dec said, if you go and speak to the French and Italians, they'll be quietly happy they drew us too."

Ireland will most likely be without the considerable talents of the remaining members of the so-called 'golden generation' by 2015. O'Driscoll has already stated that he won't be playing international rugby then. He will almost certainly be joined in international retirement by the likes of Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy and Donncha O'Callaghan, which makes the leadership shown by the next generation in November so very important.

A new breed, led by exciting talents like Craig Gilroy and Peter O'Mahony, will be charged with steering the ship in 2015, which probably goes some way to explaining Kidney's pragmatism. The win over Argentina gives cause for optimism, though.

"To be ambitious you have to have a fair measure of realism about it as well, and history has shown us that if we have realism then momentum kicks in and then once momentum kicks in, who knows?" said Kidney.

"You always aim ambitiously but you aim realistically too. One step will be to get out of the pool, and I think if we lose sight of that in the World Cup, that's where we can slip up.

"Whenever you are in a pool where the teams know each other well, it just means space will be really tight."

The Argentina result which secured Ireland's place as second seeds will prove vital when the dates of the various fixtures are finally decided on, in about 18 months' time.

While the order of the games – not having France and Italy as back-to-back fixtures, for example – will be important to Irish hopes of qualifying, so too will be the number of days Ireland are afforded between matches.

"Being in the second band of seeds is a huge plus. There has been some benefit in the past in the gap between matches, in that usually you can hope for a six or seven-day turnaround and have plenty of rest," Kidney said.

"But if you're in tier three, you can end up with a five-day turnaround, which makes it a very different competition."

A World Cup draw is always going to throw up difficult opposition and as the competition is three years away any preview now can only be regarded as highly speculative.

It's enough to say that Ireland can hope that if they use the next three years productively and nurture the advancement of the young players like Gilroy, O'Mahony, Fergus McFadden, Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson and team those alongside such talents as Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, who knows what could be achieved?

The win over Australia in the World Cup last year illustrated how unpredictable rugby is and how the right attitude on the day, allied with good organisation, efficiency in all phases and rigid discipline can produce the desired result.

Why shouldn't Ireland be able to do it again?

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