Sunday 18 November 2018

It's time for Ireland to put history of failures behind them and deliver

France game the key for Joe Schmidt’s side as they look to go further than ever before in England, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

Joe Schmidt knows keeping his star men, Jonathan Sexton, Jack McGrath and Rory Best, fit will be instrumental in his team fulfilling their potential
Joe Schmidt knows keeping his star men, Jonathan Sexton, Jack McGrath and Rory Best, fit will be instrumental in his team fulfilling their potential

Ruaidhri O’Connor

IF IT is a familiar feeling, it's because it comes at four-year intervals. That sense of hope laced with dread - the Irish rugby fans' cocktail of choice come World Cup time.

It is a brew based on experience. No nation has under-performed as consistently on the big stage as ours. At each tournament, there has been at least one moment of sickening disappointment, with 1991 the sole moment when the team could be hailed for dying with their boots on and even then they threw away a golden opportunity.

In the early days, it was symptomatic of a dark time in the game in this country, but the revival of the 2000s has rarely been matched when the big guns get together for a shoot-out.

The challenge involved in compiling a list of great Irish World Cup moments exposes the lack of heritage Ireland have in this tournament, yet there is real substance to the hope this time around.

Joe Schmidt's team come into the tournament having won the Six Nations twice in a row. In the New Zealander, they have perhaps the shrewdest coach at the table; in Paul O'Connell they have a captain to rival any of the legends brought forth from the southern hemisphere.

They will operate in the familiar surrounds of Cardiff and London, backed by a large travelling fan-base despite the extortionate ticket prices. The climate will suit them and, even if the closeness to home lends a certain added pressure, the proximity to family should negate the negative of being away for a long stretch.

Most importantly, perhaps, the draw has been kind. If Ireland pop their head out of Pool D and have a look at what's going on in Pool A where England, Wales, Australia and Fiji will do battle over the course of the coming month, they'll quickly bow down below the parapet.

It all builds towards France on Sunday, October 11.

That clash with Les Bleus, who have not beaten Ireland in their last four attempts, will define the Six Nations champions' tournament. Win, and they likely avoid New Zealand in the last eight. Lose, and the route to the final includes likely clashes with the All Blacks and then the Springboks.

While Ireland's record against Philippe Saint-Andre's side is strong, there is a sense that the finalists of four years ago are bringing it together at the right time having been together for the summer.

The word from Marcoussis is that they are bigger, leaner and stronger than ever and, while the guile in their game might be sadly absent, the way they steamrolled England during the closing stages of their first game in Twickenham and then repeated the trick in Paris does not bode well.

Yet, their narrow win over Scotland in their final warm-up game brought back the heated criticism of Saint-Andre's regime as it enters its final months.

In their last four games, Ireland have drawn with France twice and beaten them in one-score games in the last two meetings. Since reaching the 2011 final, Saint-Andre's side have managed three fourth-placed Six Nations finishes and were last in 2013.

Yet, the French tend to time their peaks for the World Cup. Their Six Nations performances are routinely undermined by their club game and the cohesion so sorely lacking should be in place after so long in camp.

Ireland have never beaten France at the World Cup and, so often, it has been the men in blue who have sent Irish sides packing.

There is little new in Saint-Andre's locker, with Freddy Michalak likely to be leading the backline in his latest incarnation but, for all the scorn laid on the eccentric Toulon half-back, he saw off Ireland at the 2003 and 2007 tournaments.

Why all the focus on France? Well, there should be precious little else to trouble Schmidt's side in Pool D.

The presence of a small handful of 2007 veterans should guard against complacency when facing Canada and Romania, while Italy are a fading force capable of strong 60-minute performances but lacking the depth to follow through.

Ireland's schedule gives them a chance to build towards the Millennium Stadium finale and they should be in good fettle come the second weekend in October.

Watching closely will be the All Blacks who must reach a pitch for their opening weekend meeting with Argentina before negotiating Namibia, Georgia and Tonga to top Pool C.

Although they are undoubtedly the strongest team in the tournament with the deepest squad to boot, they have always been at their most vulnerable at the quarter-final stage and the prospect of a last-eight meeting with France in Cardiff would evoke nightmares of 2007.

Even if Ireland lose to the French, all should not be lost.

They have never beaten the world champions, but under Schmidt the men in green have displayed the smarts to take on anyone and memories of that fateful November afternoon in 2013 should drive them on.

Key to Ireland's efforts is fitness.

Schmidt has used 62 players over the course of 22 matches in charge, but there is a group of individuals whose importance to the cause is paramount.

Chief among them are half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, while the loss of inside centre Robbie Henshaw would also be hard to take. Rob Kearney's calm assurance at full-back would be a major miss, while up front Mike Ross, Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip look nigh on irreplaceable if Ireland are to fulfil their potential.

This has been described by a number of contenders as the most open World Cup in history with as many as six potential winners, but few have as shallow a squad as Ireland do.

Wales have already been hit with an injury hammer blow that will sorely test their resources and it was a reminder to Ireland that, in losing only the luckless Tommy O'Donnell during their four warm-ups, they had got off lightly.

Keeping the front-liners fit is one thing, picking on form is another and Schmidt must live up to his ruthless reputation if his side are to deliver on their potential this month.

This is all new to the clever Kiwi and he must adapt to his surrounds. Ireland's team bases are off the beaten track, taking in Cardiff, Burton-on-Trent, Guildford in Surrey and Newport in Wales and keeping the players happy during an intensive regime will be another important element.

If they are to achieve their goal and make it to the last four, then they will be in England and Wales for the duration and will be on tour for more than seven weeks given there's a third/fourth place play-off if they come off second best in the semi-final.

However, few would bet against Schmidt if he manages to negotiate his side that far.

Sure, injuries could take their toll and the need to perform for five successive weeks would be tough on the Ireland squad, but the coach has an incredible record in knockout rugby and has a history of delivering when it matters most.

The ideal route includes beating France and beating the Pumas in the quarter-final, setting up a semi-final at Twickenham against England, Australia or Wales.

On the other side of the draw, the southern hemisphere big two are scheduled to meet in the final four, although the Springboks will face a tough task against the second-placed side in Pool A assuming they come out on top of their shallow group unscathed.

A look at the bookies' odds suggests a familiar world order, with the All Blacks outright favourites, hosts England just behind and the Boks and Australia next in line. Ireland are just ahead of the dark horses France, with Wales out to 25/1 after losing Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb.

Having lost just four games since their narrow victory at Eden Park four years ago, the men in black are undoubtedly the class act in the field, but they have never won a World Cup outside of New Zealand despite being the undisputed favourites at every competition.

It is theirs to lose, but they've managed to mess up in different ways before. If they do, then the question is who will be ready to seize that opportunity.

Ireland have never been better set. Well-coached, disciplined and completely in tune with each other, they have the team to compete with anyone when they bring their best game to the table.

Until they deliver on their potential and reach the last four at least, there will always be a lingering doubt going in to World Cups.

However, the question is: if not now, when?

There's never been a better time for Ireland to make history.

Irish Independent

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