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It just might be Ireland's year

IT'S been a grim start to the year. The recent water shortage had a calamitous effect on hair hygiene, with the result that this much admired mane has lost its customary lustre.

Phone pollution has run rampant due to people's misguided notion that everyone in their contact book wants to receive generic New Year's messages riddled with choreographed jollity (note: any man who texts smiley faces should be checked for hidden ovaries).

And our comfort eating has become so chronic that a recent gargantuan takeaway order had to be supplemented with "and two cans of Diet Coke" to distract the Chinese woman on the end of the phone from our sad, solo gluttony.

Thus, it is a good time for some form of optimism, a shaft of light to penetrate this dank world of matted hairbrushes and mountains of over-gnawed spare ribs. So, how about Ireland to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in nine months' time?

The mixed results in 2010 may have introduced an element of caution, verging on gloom, when it comes to assessments of our national side but there is enough reason to justifiably take a glass-half-full approach.

This year is all about the World Cup. Even if Irish rugby can repeat the 2009 clean sweep of Grand Slam, Heineken Cup and Magners League triumphs, failure at the World Cup will over-ride all other achievements.

That fact established, the progress of the provinces is instrumental to Ireland's chances at that tournament and heading into the New Year there are encouraging signs.

Starting with the performances of Leinster, whose verve and vigour is sweeping along a clutch of players central to Ireland's cause. Joe Schmidt's fresh approach has proved invigorating for experienced campaigners like Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Eoin Reddan, Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross and Leo Cullen, and the younger brigade of Jonathan Sexton, Fergus McFadden, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien have also been flying.

And, while Munster have had their issues and face their critical test next week in Toulon, they have also provided cause for green-tinted positivity.

Damien Varley has stepped up to the plate in a major way in place of the desperately unfortunate Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy is bristling with brio on his return from injury and Ronan O'Gara is having a very assured season at No 10.

Furthermore, while 2010 carried its share of disruption for Keith Earls, Tomas O'Leary and Paul O'Connell, the upside will be timely freshness as the build-up to New Zealand 2011 begins in earnest.

Ulster have been a mixed bag but Stephen Ferris, Rory Best Andrew Trimble and, particularly, Tom Court have had their good moments, while we still hold out a sneaking suspicion that Willie Faloon could also force his way into the reckoning.

Connacht should not be forgotten, given Sean Cronin's rapid development and a big year from Fionn Carr could also force the hand of the Ireland selectors.

Factor in Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Kevin McLaughlin, Flannery and John Muldoon, when all are back at full form and fitness, and there is the making of a very potent squad packed with experience, physicality and footballing ability.

Of course, we were saying the same before the 2007 tournament when Irish confidence blew up in their faces but, assuming those lessons have been learned (and the pre-World Cup preparation schedule suggests that they have) the very least we can expect is a much improved performance on four years ago.


So, with liquid now threatening the rim of the glass, how exactly would this semi-final come about? We see Ireland disposing of the USA, Russia and Italy with relative ease -- avoiding the morale-sapping horror shows against Namibia and Georgia last time around -- and coming close to Australia to finish second in Pool C.

That would set up a quarter-final against champions South Africa, who would go in as widespread favourites -- just the type of scenario Ireland and Declan Kidney traditionally revel in. This is where the coach comes into his own, employing every psychological and scientifically analysed trigger to upset the odds and bring Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final.

The All Blacks will end the dream there but it will still have been an excellent tournament, ideally achieved by Ireland replicating the style of play that has proven so effective for Leinster and possibly crowned with a third-place victory over England.

But what if it all goes pear-shaped and Ireland flop out at the pool stages or slink home after a quarter-final hammering? Easy, we have the Shangri-La on speed dial ...

Irish Independent