Thursday 19 September 2019

'I'm really gutted to say it' - Luke Fitzgerald gives his verdict on Ireland's World Cup chances

Ireland players, from left, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Sexton, Bundee Aki and Keith Earls during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Sexton, Bundee Aki and Keith Earls during the Guinness Summer Series match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Tony Considine

The Irish team departed for Japan on schedule on Wednesday afternoon despite the havoc that a deadly typhoon has been wreaking in host nation Japan.

Back to back victories over Wales have the newly-installed number one team in the world in a far better place than they looked last month after England's demotion job at Twickenham.

But it’s the potential quarter-final storm that awaits that was concerning The Left Wing panel on this week’s rugby podcast in association with Aldi.

Host Will Slattery was joined in studio by Irish Independent rugby correspondents Rúaidhrí O'Connor and Cian Tracey ahead of their own departure to the land of the rising scrum, along with former World Cup star Luke Fitzgerald to share their thoughts on how Ireland may fare.

And unfortunately for the Boys in Green, none can see a route for Ireland that will see them break their World Cup last-eight hoodoo.

"I’m really gutted to say it but I think the quarter-final," Fitzgerald began when asked how far he saw Ireland’s tournament stretching.

"When the groups came out that was my first thought. It’s a disaster of a quarter-final, unfortunately.

"I think it will be a really close match in the quarter-final. With New Zealand, you could see it being tight because Ireland have the confidence. They won't be completely overawed by playing them because they know they can compete with them if they play to 100 per cent of their ability. I think they’d still beat us but it would be tight.

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"The South Africa one, I’m less sure about. They’ve timed it really well. I think their pack is going to be an issue for us, they’re so big and strong. It hurts me to say it because I feel we could compete with them and there might be a few ways into the game.

"But on balance, how the teams are playing, who’s on form, the age profile of some of the players…at that point of the tournament, it doesn't sit well and with a heavy heart, I’m sticking with the quarters."

The other lads were equally down-beat with Tracey adding: "I think they will top the pool but regardless of who they play, it’s just going to be an incredibly tough task.

"I would worry about how many players could be injured by then, which is what happened at the last World Cup. While the squad is full of depth I would still have concerns going up against either the All Blacks or the Springboks."

From O’Connor’s perspective, he wasn’t prepared to fully write off Ireland’s chances but was concerned that even the release of finally breaching the quarter-final wall could bring its own problems.

"Any one of six teams can win it and Ireland are one of those six teams," he said.

"But I think on the law of averages, they’re going out in the quarter-final again.

"The one thing that concerns me, and it’s always concerned me with Ireland in the World Cup, is that if they ever actually do win a quarter-final, they’ll go out and lose to Wales in the semi.

"Imagine you go and beat New Zealand in a quarter-final and everyone loses their mind like the France game four years ago. It would be completely understandable, it’s history but a week later you just can't get up for a semi-final because you’ve achieved it."

With the panel all coming down on the side of an early flight home, it was left to the host to strike a note of optimism as the rugby world gears up for the sport's showpiece over the next month and a half.

"I think if they win the quarter-final, they’ll get to the final. I don't think they’ll go out to Wales or Australia," Slattery concluded.

"I can see a Schmidt Gatland semi-final, the last stand for both of them. I think Ireland will beat South Africa in the quarter-final.

"But I’ve tipped England to win it so theoretically on paper that means an Ireland vs England final. I can’t even imagine (the tension of that) taking place.

"That would be the greatest thing of all time, a World Cup final between Ireland and England!"

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