Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dawson insists Schmidt's men should embrace being contenders

Matt Dawson
Matt Dawson
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As back-to-back Six Nations champions, Joe Schmidt and his Ireland players are only too aware that they are heading into the World Cup with a target on their backs.

It's the kind of target that creates even more pressure, but given that it invariably arrives on the back of success, it's a position they wouldn't swap.

Matt Dawson knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a World Cup in the same year as winning the Six Nations, and he is adamant that Ireland are well-equipped to launch a realistic title bid.

The fact that Ireland have never gotten beyond the quarter-finals remains a major hurdle, but the former England scrum-half believes that their "world-class " players can inspire them.

"They'll be a tricky animal. They've got into the habit of winning," Dawson says.

"I don't think they're particularly bothered with having a monkey on their back for World Cup failure. They're just pressing on. They're going to a tough side to beat.

Favourites

"A lot of those players have been in the Leinster side who have won three European Cups, won back-to-back European Cups, they know what it's like to be favourites. It's not new to them.

"They've played for the Lions. What more experience do you want really? They just went about their business with people maybe not seeing them as the best team in the Northern Hemisphere - but they are.

"I'm sure every team would like to be slightly underestimated going into a game but the sooner you get used to having the title of 'contenders', it actually enhances your game and I think that's where Ireland are right now.

"If you look at them, I would say they will make the semi-finals. I think the players are probably sick to death of being known as a team who don't like being favourites."

Dawson was an integral part of England's 2003 World Cup-winning team and he can see elements of his partnership with Jonny Wilkinson in the roles that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton play for Ireland.

In Dawson's eyes, Ireland's hopes are largely dependent on both the form and fitness of the half-backs and it's a summation that's difficult to argue with.

"Ireland have had some good players throughout the World Cup years but have you had world-class nines and tens? I can't think of any," he suggests.

"(Peter) Stringer, good player, Ronan (O'Gara) good player for a long period, but were they ever the best in the world at that time? Probably not.

"Now they're looking at Sexton and Murray who are certainly world class. If either of those players were to get injured, it would seriously dent Ireland's hopes.

"Conor Murray looks like a player to me who loves being the best in the world and he thrives on it. Every time he's put under pressure, he delivers.

"They have a world-class nine and a world-class 10, world-class winger in (Tommy) Bowe, 15 with (Rob) Kearney - that's four backs who you could argue would get into a world XV.

"Then up front with (Cian) Healy, (Paul) O'Connell, (Jamie) Heaslip, (Sean) O'Brien, these players have played and have been successful at the very top level. That will stand them in very, very good stead.

Enormous

"There is an enormous step-up at a World Cup. The semi-final and final were the two biggest games I ever played in and they were significantly more intense and demanded better decision-making from all of our players more so than any other game.

"That's why I look at the Irish players and in particular their nine and 10 and I see that they're the sort who can make those big decisions on the hoof."

Clive Woodward masterminded England's success 12 years ago and Dawson is adamant that Schmidt can do the same, as long as his game-plan is flexible enough to change when it matters most.

Schmidt came in for some unjust criticism during the Six Nations and after last week's defeat to Wales, Warren Gatland suggested that Ireland are very much limited in what they do.

"You've got to be able to play badly and win. They've got a great coach. Strategically I think they'll be better, I think they've got more of a threat," Dawson enthused.

"If they get to a semi-final, after 10 minutes, they're probably going to have to change their game-plan because the opposition are not doing what they thought in their training.

"But they've got the players to adapt to that.

"England have got an advantage of playing at home but we know that wherever Ireland play, they're effectively going to be playing at home.

"We know what the Irish fans are like.

"They're going to bring a cracking atmosphere for their side."

Like most Irish supporters, Dawson has high hopes for Ireland. It's time for them to deliver on them.

Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson is a brand ambassador with Heineken, proud sponsor of the Rugby World Cup for 20 years.

Irish Independent

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