Brent Pope: 'Victory over Scotland would allow Ireland to manage Pool A'
Winning a World Cup, or even getting to a World Cup final, requires just about everything to go right for nearly two months.
Realistically, you have to win six or seven games on the trot, although some pools including Ireland’s will allow teams to lose a game and still qualify.
I think 2019 will be the closest competition yet, with as many as six teams capable of winning the competition outright. Sadly, Japan and Fiji apart, it’s unlikely that the second-tier nations will cause any major upsets this year. The quarter-final pairings are predictable.
In other years, we have been treated to some fantastic ‘against the odds wins’ by teams such as Samoa, Japan, Fiji, Canada and others, but as the game has become more professional the chances of this happening decrease.
Getting to the knock-out stages requires almost chess-like strategic planning, and mostly it means rotating the entire squad at key times so that they are fit and in form for the key matches later in the tournament.
On the opening weekend, Ireland will be without Robbie Henshaw, Joey Carbery, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney.
Coaches will adapt a World Cup media strategy of not always being completely up front with selections. Understandably, they don’t want opposition teams to change their game-plan too early.
However, I believe that Ireland still have enough in the locker to cover their losses and they should beat Scotland in their opening pool match.
If that happens, without being arrogant, they will be just about assured of a quarter-final berth in week one.
Joe Schmidt will still have another month to nurse his players along and rotate his squad, more so given the most difficult matches for Ireland are the first two, Scotland and then six days later Japan.
The secret is to peak in a months’ time, while doing enough to win, and gain confidence while going through the pool.
In my opinion Ireland’s preparation has been far better than Scotland’s. Friendlies against Wales and England will have given Ireland an excellent blow-out in near test playing conditions, while Scotland’s back-to-back games against Georgia won’t have given them the same intensity.
We know Scotland are potentially a dangerous side, especially if their key playmakers like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg are given too much space.
But Ireland’s tighter game plan will be too much for a Scottish side that, while trying to play their traditional open style of rugby, may find the humidity and slippery ball to their detriment.
Ireland will rely on a better kicking game and set-piece dominance to win. Japan still lie in the wings for the loser of this match. The Japanese, like many of the lesser teams, can only afford to throw out their best side on maybe two occasions.
If Ireland win, then Japan’s astute coach Jamie Joseph will look for obvious wins against Russia and Samoa and then go after what he hopes will be an injury-depleted Scotland in the last pool match to decide the runner-up qualifier.
Remember, Japan won three games in the last tournament but still did not qualify.
It’s too early to predict but I see the title being between four sides – New Zealand, England, South Africa and Ireland, Yes Ireland!
All the talk is of the South Africans at the moment, but remember New Zealand have won the World Cup twice after not winning the Southern Hemisphere series that same year, and South African’s great run of form is really based on a win against Australia, a last-minute draw against New Zealand in New Zealand and an impressive coaching takeover by ex-Munster boss Rassie Erasmus.
The first weekend will tell us a lot. If South Africa win impressively against the All Blacks tomorrow, then I will buy into the fact that they are favourites alongside England on either side of the draw.
But if the Boks are well beaten by New Zealand then Ireland (who I believe will top their group) will see that they have a good record against the Springboks in recent years.
I’m still opting for an All Black win against South Africa and a South Africa v Ireland quarter-final.
A lot has to happen before that and Ireland must start this weekend with a good win against Scotland. they need key players like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray to get more positive game time together and they need to avoid any further injuries.