Wednesday 23 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'We'll get the World Cup we deserve - for better or worse'

This Ireland team has won plenty of big games and will be expertly directed by Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy.
This Ireland team has won plenty of big games and will be expertly directed by Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy.
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

What would be regarded as success for Ireland at the World Cup? Would you believe a place in the final?

If that sounds a bit demanding, consider this. Making the quarter-finals will be no achievement at all.

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That merely requires a victory over Japan, who two years ago Ireland were able to beat 50-22 and 35-13 on their home turf. The host nation's results since include a defeat by Italy, and 34 and 38-point losses to South Africa and New Zealand.

Ireland can afford to lose to Scotland and still make the last eight. It's unlikely they will but victory won't represent any kind of progress given that Ireland have won six of the last seven meetings. Defeat would indicate a team in serious decline.

The first real test will be the quarter-final on, probably, October 20 against either the All Blacks or the Springboks. Test is putting it mildly. Were Ireland to win that one it might well count as the finest victory in Irish rugby history.

So a victory there and the team are in the bonus, right? Wrong. Because should Ireland win that quarter-final they would then start as favourites against, most likely, either Australia or Wales in the semis.

Jonah Lomu. Photo: Getty
Jonah Lomu. Photo: Getty

And, just as the gloss was entirely knocked off the famous victory over Australia in 2011 by our subsequent loss to Wales, losing the semi-final to such opposition after winning a quarter against one of the big two would be seen as repeating a pattern of World Cup underachievement.

It might sound unfair but that's how it is. Final or bust. Is that expecting too much?

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Ireland are not going to win the tournament. The only potential champions are the All Blacks, South Africa and England. However, there is a flight of teams below that who have a chance of making the final.

They're good enough to shock one of the big three but not to beat two of them. To that group belong Wales, Australia and ourselves.

Then there's a third group, Scotland, France and Argentina, who could beat one of the teams from the second flight should they suffer an off-day but are good for one shock result only. They're further behind Ireland than we are behind the top trio.

At the beginning of the year Ireland had a reasonable claim to be regarded as potential champions. But to believe that this is still the case requires bringing positive thinking to the level of outright sophistry.

You have to insist that the 2018 rather than the 2019 Six Nations represents the true worth of the team, that the warm-up match against England can be disregarded, while that against Wales two weeks later was hugely significant and that Ireland's number one world ranking is deserved rather than entirely laughable.

Come off it. We've lost twice to England and once to Wales this year yet been elevated to the top slot on the basis of two wins against the latter, one of which was little more than a B international.

Yet, after all the travails of 2019 and just three weeks after a record defeat at Twickenham, the 'we can win this one' brigade are back in full voice.

It's as though, after the win over the All Blacks, they'd been looking forward to the hype so much they were reluctant to let it be diminished by anything as vulgar as results.

Ireland's last Six Nations campaign was apparently the rugby equivalent of Bobby Ewing's bad dream.

Yet if the hype is not entirely appropriate, neither is it completely unreasonable. Our position among the best half-dozen teams in the tournament lends us a puncher's chance.

England in 2007 and France in 2011 both showed how an experienced team containing quality players could make light of recent form if it got the bit between its teeth.

On the credit side Ireland have a seasoned and combative pack good enough to overpower all but the very best opposition.

In Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan they have two of the best performers in the world at their positions.

The scrum is a strength and will not be notably weakened by the introduction of the excellent David Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter at any stage.

It is also easy to imagine the likes of Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander rising to the occasion to give world-class performances in a quarter-final.

Behind the scrum, Jacob Stockdale is one of the finest finishers in the world, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will form an obdurate centre partnership and Rob Kearney's renaissance has continued this season even when others faltered.

Above all this team has won plenty of big games and will be expertly directed by Joe Schmidt.

On the debit side? A year ago any analysis of Ireland's strengths would have begun by pointing out that we possessed the game's finest half-back pairing.

Now the duo of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray inspire as much worry as celebration.

All the jubilation over that win against Wales failed to mask the fact that once more Sexton looked short of match practice and Murray low on confidence.

All year we have waited for the duo to return to top form. But what if, like this year's Irish summer, it never happens?

Ireland's hopes of getting beyond the last eight largely rest on two players whose ability to recover their form must be taken on trust. It's hardly ideal.

For that matter, who's to say that Stander and O'Mahony will click into gear after falling so far from the heights of 2018?

Then there's the question of the lineout. After Ireland's win over the All Blacks there was unanimous agreement that Devin Toner had become indispensable.

After Toner went off, an Irish team without a top-class jumper came under severe pressure from the All Blacks. It almost cost them the game.

Yet they enter this tournament without Toner. It beggars belief that Schmidt has brought in Jean Kleyn, yet even the best coaches can be stubborn about proving themselves right.

It may be that the South African sees significant time in Japan though, as Brian O'Driscoll pointed out, the scrum actually improved after he went off against Wales.

Iain Henderson is hugely superior to Kleyn in every aspect of the game yet is no lineout specialist either. Given the struggles Rory Best and Seán Cronin have endured in the past the exclusion of Toner offers a major hostage to fortune.

It seems likely Ireland will adopt a conservative front of the lineout throwing policy with all the implications that poses for attacking creativity.

That latter aspect of the game may not concern Schmidt too much. If Ireland do face South Africa in a quarter-final, grinding attrition will be the order of the day with expansive three-quarter play at a premium.

That is the day when, if Ireland have got it wrong, their shortcomings will be ruthlessly exposed. Or vice versa. Everything before that will be merely preamble, scarcely more meaningful than the warm-up games.

The most likely conclusion is that Ireland will go out at the hands of South Africa. Yet this is far from inevitable. Saturday's game between New Zealand and the Boks could have profound implications for Ireland.

A big win by the All Blacks could plant seeds of doubt in a South African team not without its flaky side. A South African victory on the other hand would pit Ireland against a wounded New Zealand side with something to prove, probably the most dangerous opposition of all.

It's foolish to back against the Blacks and the safe prediction is that they will make it three wins in a row.

Yet few Rugby World Cups have panned out exactly as predicted and the South Africans, unquestionably on the way up, with an enormously strong pack, the new best half-back pairing in the world and a lot of pace out wide, could well turn them over at the second time of asking.

For all their physical power I'm not entirely convinced about England, whose struggles against Wales and Scotland in the Six Nations suggested they might not have the necessary consistency for a sustained effort.

Wales may be the most likely dark horses, not least because their coach is unrivalled at coaxing big-game performances from apparently limited sides.

Argentina might be the one surprise qualifier for the last eight. Their unimpressive performances in the Rugby Championship seem slightly more impressive than France's unimpressive performances in the Six Nations.

Irish optimism is founded to a certain degree on the belief that surely at some stage we'll get the World Cup right and play above rather than below ourselves. It feels like we're due a break. But the arc of the universe doesn't bend towards justice in sport.

This time, like all the other times, we'll get what we deserve.

What do we deserve? I'll tell you on October 20.

Blatantly unfair to have minnows swimming in the same pool as rugby's killer sharks

First the good.

Jonah Lomu walking over the English defence for his first try in the 1995 semi-final, David Campese's magical try and assist against the All Blacks in 1991, Japan gambling big in the last minute against South Africa and being rewarded, Mandela in the Springbok jersey on final day, Jannie de Beer's five drop goals against England in 1999, Johnny Wilkinson's one drop goal that meant everything four years later, France playing exhibition rugby to beat the All Blacks in the 1999 semi-final, Western Samoa beating Wales, Wales spoiling England's party at Twickenham four years ago, Tonga shocking France.

The Rugby World Cup has contributed its fair share to the pantheon of memorable sporting moments and this year's tournament will no doubt add to the number. There's always something which sticks with you long after the finals end.

It would be nice if there was an Irish moment to add to the pile. The highlight of our World Cup years is probably Gordon Hamilton's try against Australia in 1991, charging through after Jack Clarke had popped up Jim Staples' kick to him and sparking scenes of jubilation as wild as were ever seen at the old Lansdowne Road.

However, the return to reality three minutes later when Michael Lynagh touched down for the Wallabies lends that memory a somewhat bittersweet flavour.

Moments of unambiguous joy have been few for Ireland at the World Cup. Even the surpassingly gallant victory over France in the last tournament was accompanied by the knowledge that the injuries incurred might prove costly later on. And so it proved.

Now, the bad.

All World Cups in whatever sport tend to be absurdly elongated. However the rugby finals are in a class of their own for futile fixtures. We can be fairly sure of the identity of seven of the eight qualifiers and that of the other will be decided by the result of France's match with Argentina next Saturday.

There are probably only three other matches which might be competitive and have a bearing on the knockout stages.

Ireland-Scotland and South Africa-New Zealand will also be out of the way after next weekend. Which leaves us with three weeks of almost unrelieved meaninglessness apart from Wales' meeting with Australia on September 29.

The first proper game in October, unless you think France or Argentina can give England a fright, won't come until the quarter-finals begin on October 19.

Until then there's just a lot of filler, matches like Ireland's concluding group games against Russia and Samoa.

These are foregone conclusions and no-one will be fooled by attempts to pretend that they contain vital pointers to the road ahead for the managers of the stronger teams.

Of 40 group games, around 90 per cent can safely be ignored by anyone with anything at all better to do.

The padding comes about as a result of the world governing body's desire to pretend that rugby is a world game like soccer. In reality it's more akin to cricket where the standard drops precipitously once you leave the top ten.

Ten teams would be plenty in the finals but for marketing reasons the thing must be stretched out.

The idea that participation in the tournament will improve the standard of the weaker teams is demonstrably false.

The USA and Canada have been participating since 1987 and are no better now than they were then. Tonga and Samoa, once able to score upsets, are much weaker.

Russia, Namibia and Uruguay have no business being in the tournament at all.

It's better to be honest about this rather than indulging in the quadrennial ritual whereby it's pretended that things are looking up for the minnows because they're getting beaten by a slightly smaller margin than they were four years ago.

The ugly? I could personally do without the lads who'll spend the tournament sneering at the Irish team and anyone who takes an interest in it on the grounds that rugby's status as a game played by 'posh boys' is an offence to these horny-handed representatives of the ordinary five-eight-decent-salt-of-the-earth working class man in the street.

Like it or not, the Irish team commands broad popular support, something obvious from the huge viewing figures at the last tournament. So a little less jibing about 'bandwagons' and so on might be in order.

Be kind. This is a country where people just pissed their pants with patriotic pride when the Taoiseach delivered a classical allusion like a child reading from a Percy Jackson book he got at Christmas.

It's obviously in dire need of some actual victories.

Reece primed to be try scoring shooting star

One of the great joys of the Rugby World Cup is when it serves as a platform for the emergence of a new star. The shining example of this is Jonah Lomu, an unknown before the 1995 tournament who by the end of it was as famous as any rugby player had ever been.

At the last tournament Nehe Milner-Skudder was the boy from nowhere, the 24-year-old's performances apparently pointing the way towards a glorious future in the game which has subsequently been put on hold by injury problems.

So perhaps when searching for this year's potential shooting star we shouldn't look much further than two young New Zealand wingers. Less than a year ago Sevu Reece was best known as the guy whose move to Connacht had been cancelled after he was found guilty of domestic violence.

Snapped up by Crusaders and given a first-team chance by injuries Reece went on to become Super Rugby's top try scorer this season and win a first international cap. The 27-year-old Fijian looks a good bet to become top try scorer in the World Cup as well.

Watch out too for his clubmate, George Bridge, who's scored seven tries in five games since making his debut in November. Even if he can't force his way into the first team past Rieko Ioane, Bridge should at the very least run riot against the lesser lights in the group stages.

* * * * *

In the event of disappointment it's important to have a few excuses at the ready. So here goes. If Ireland lose to South Africa, you can dig up the photo recently retweeted by Stephen Ferris of the Springboks with their shirts off and make a few loaded comments about the insanely ripped nature of the Boks pack.

If we come a cropper against the All Blacks observe that in this day and age it's time we started taking the concussion risk posed by high tackles seriously. There's surely still some mileage left in Billy Vunipola and homophobia should England do better than us. And Wales are managed by Warren Gatland who's just a meanie.

Remember these key self-righteous words, "I'd prefer to lose than go to those lengths." Coming soon to a talk radio show near you.

* * * * *

What's happened to Irish rugby refereeing? Not a single referee from this country will take charge of a game at the finals whereas there will be four from France and two each from England, Australia and New Zealand.

Our only representative is Andrew Brace who'll be an assistant and is really a transplanted Welshman.

It's in stark contrast to the previous four tournaments, all of which saw two Irish referees in action. How has it come to this for the land of Kevin Kelleher, David McHugh and Alain Rolland? Could it be that Max Boyce was right after all?

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