Tuesday 12 November 2019

English journalist believes Ireland can win the World Cup but on one condition

Ireland's Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton (left) celebrate during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton (left) celebrate during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium

Mick Cleary

Are Ireland good enough to win the Rugby World Cup? Yes, they are.

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary is tipping Ireland for glory. Read his piece below.

You do have not to be a great side to lift the Webb Ellis trophy but you do have to be highly-efficient: merciless in defence, ruthless in accumulating points, on-song and on-message throughout the tournament.

Ireland are that all right, a band of brothers in emerald green, marching to the beat of their coach, Joe Schmidt. The Schmidt way is not a thing of beauty to the neutral eye, all pressure and subdue, ball-in-the air, ball between the posts, induce mistakes, take the reward.

Ireland should make absolutely no apology for that. It is highly efficient and damn effective. There were no dissenters to be found on the joyous streets of Dublin on Sunday night, after Ireland's 19-9 win. Test rugby is not ice-skating. There are no marks awarded for artistic impression. Victory is all. A record-equalling 10 in a row ... and counting.

You do not have to play in the grand manner, all sweeping movement and dazzling sleight-of-hand, attacking with joyful abandon. You do not even have to score too many tries, although crossing the line does help. But what you must have is a kicker of majestic proportions, from hand and from tee, a player who can tease and torment with the precision of his punts, a man with nerve and aplomb, one who enacts his coach’s wishes to the last letter of the game plan.

Ireland have Jonathan Sexton. And they have Schmidt. Playmaker and coach as one, an umbilical cord that cannot be ruptured. Sexton is Schmidt incarnate, scheming, assessing and wholly persuaded of the merits of the case as well as the cause.

That is both Ireland’s greatest strength and their greatest weakness. In clover, Sexton can deliver that World Cup for Ireland. Without him, their prospects plummet. So much is dependent on his prowess. That much was evident on Sunday.

Ireland had made light of the absence of No8 Jamie Heaslip, felled by that dastardly knee from Pascal Pape. They managed, too, without as much as a murmur, when another back-row colossus Sean O’Brien, reeling from a blow to the head, was off the field and back in the dressing-room by the 25th minute. The breach was filled commendably by Tommy O’Donnell.

And consider too all that air time 12 months ago spent debating how Ireland would cope with the void left by the soon-to-retire Brian O’Driscoll. Very well indeed is the answer, with 21-year-old Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw the only try-scorer on Sunday, to the manor born.

But Ireland without Sexton is like the castle without its moat: vulnerable. Sexton came off in the 55th minute to be replaced by Ian Madigan. It was not long before the backup fly-half had over-clubbed one kick, landing it a good five metres beyond the touchline. The finesse was gone, the threat reduced, the sense of control diminished.

 The kicking strategy is instrumental to Ireland’s plans. It is the must-have accessory of any side with World Cup pretensions. The All Blacks may run and swerve and pounce. But first of all they kick. For territory. For pressure. For opportunity. It is not aimless. It is highly choreographed. And it is a proven way of delivering a return. The stats do not lie.

Ireland kicked the ball 44 times on Sunday; once every two minutes. More tellingly, their halfbacks, Sexton and Conor Murray, kicked 19 times, the same in fact as their opposite numbers, Ben Youngs and George Ford. Ireland regained possession six times from those kicks, England didn’t manage it once. The Irish chase was as well-timed and well-executed as the kick.

World Cups have rarely gone to the bold and innovative. They have been won by sides at one with themselves, in harmony and pitch-perfect. There has to be total belief in the project, no grumbling about chasing kicks and rarely running. With Ireland, they have all bought in to the Schmidt vision.

Defence is as crucial as kicking. In that regards, too, Sexton scores heavily. He should not be seen as a robotic automaton, a monochrome presence. Quite the opposite. There was passion in everything that he did.

There was zeal and urgency in his tackling. See how he hunted down Ford, made sure he knew what rugby at this level was all about. Ford, to his credit, did not flinch.

There are many other component parts that need to work if Sexton is to flourish. The set-piece has to be tight-knit and well-oiled. It was, and it is. Again, one mighty figure, that of Paul O’Connell, was at the heart of all that was good in Ireland’s forward game. The scrum was steady. The line-out was nigh on flawless.

And yet. We are not yet in the presence of greatness with this Irish team. They do not put opponents to the sword, do not have the capacity to eviscerate them with the potency of their attack. They maximise what they have got. Every last bit of it. Perhaps Schmidt is biding his time until Henshaw and Jared Payne are bedded down as a centre combination.

Or perhaps Schmidt realises the extent of his team’s limitations. He is playing the percentages, and they stack up rather favourably at the moment.

Irish sides of the past decade with O’Driscoll in his pomp, that golden generation, have won triple crowns and championships, and, finally, a Grand Slam in 2009. Yet expectations weighed heavily on them, notably at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when they failed to even get out of their pool.

This squad have no inflated notion of their own worth. A Grand Slam, only the third in their history, will not come their way easily. They will have to graft for it, keep hitting those heights of rigour and excellence.

And they will have to fall to their knees and beseech very conceivable deity that Sexton’s hamstring heals.



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