Ireland's Prospects Diminished
The eurphoria following victories against South Africa and Australia and the Six Nations performance has given way to pessimism and anxiety
By Brent Pope.
Six months ago it was thought this Irish team could make a major impact on this years world cup finals. No longer an outside bet, Ireland were ranked as high as third in the world after an autumn that delivered wins over former world cup champions Australia and South Africa; might they not beat any team on a good day? Since then expectations have been slightly dampened.
Since the end of the Six Nations, Ireland has come of the rails a bit. The tour of Argentina wasn't an overall success. With the exception of Ulster's Stephen Ferris and perhaps Gavin Duffy it didn't really reveal any new players that might make any significant difference to the starting team. The loss to Scotland and the near loss to Italy in Ravenhill means that Ireland is now entering the World Cup with many supporters feeling that they will be lucky just to qualify from Pool D.
The World Cup is the Olympics of rugby, so teams are building four years in advance and should be reaching their peak six months out from the tournament. It now seems that while Australia and New Zealand are getting their timing right, and even Argentina to a lesser extent, Ireland has hit a bad patch at a particularly bad time. Yes, Ireland is missing bonafide stars in David Wallace and Brian O'Driscoll in particular, but reliance on one or two players at this level is precarious at best.
Nonetheless, Ireland still has the ability in their first strength team to qualify from Pool D. Beating France in their home stadium of Stade de France will be tough. Should Ireland beat Argentina and then finish second in Pool D, they will then face a fresh and well rested All Black team in the Quarter Final in Cardiff, and this will more than likely spell the end of their World Cup. Three games of that magnitude will be a bridge too far for Ireland and a bridge too far for most teams
Eddie O'Sullivan has always had a preference for big ball carrying forwards, and this explains why the bolter of the squad Stephen Ferris was catapulted into the team. From the fringes of the Irish outfit six months ago, following a good tour of Argentina he suddenly bypassed Jamie Heaslip and more surprisingly ex-Australian Keith Gleeson to the extra loose forward spot.
The decision to take Alan Quinlan in place of a fourth second row player is a good one, and Quinlan in particular will bring the tenacity and aggression Ireland needs against gnarly teams like Argentina and France.
But the August test against Italy showed that leaving Gleeson behind could be a huge mistake. Eddie O'Sullivan said in an interview post game that winning the ball on the ground is perhaps not as critical as it used to be, but that game and the one against Scotland showed that Ireland struggled to find a link up or continuity player of Gleeson's class to carry on the play from backs to forwards. When you have a solid pack of forwards and excellent backs as Ireland does, the team needs a player to link the two together. While David Wallace is a world class number seven, in my opinion he is best positioned as a number eight with his leg drive and ability to break the gain line.
The decision not to take Gleeson will have undoubtedly haunted Eddie O'Sullivan after the Italian game. Analysing that game and the game against Scotland where Ireland was outplayed comprehensively in the loose forwards, O'Sullivan will be wondering if a replacement like Neil Best will be superfluous. Best is an abrasive character but Ireland already having those types of players in Quinlan and Leamy, he needed a thinker like Gleeson to add to muscle.
Defences are so tight now that coaches search microscopically for opposition weaknesses.
Ireland is dubious at scrum time and while they did well last year in the Six Nations the likes of Argentina, maybe the All Blacks will be a step up for the Irish cockpit. Ireland has a good line out in Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mal O'Kelly so opponents will not target much ball there. There is a good ball carrying back row in Leamy, Wallace and Easterby but second phase ball especially when it is on the ground could be a problem as we have seen recently.
Opposing teams may have a go around the fringes of the ruck and scrum where Stringer's lack of size might prove vulnerable, and they might also use big runners down Ronan O'Gara's channel in an effort to get in behind Ireland's backs forcing them to defend rather than attack. Most coaches will obviously try to optimise their attack at Ireland's perceived weaknesses namely the scrum and loose ball. Certainly opponents wouldn't run at Brian O'Driscoll or Gordan D'Arcy as they are both excellent tacklers, neither will they take on powerhouse Shane Horgan. They will try to force as many scrums as possible and deny Ireland any go forward or front foot ball; it is up to Ireland to do the opposite, namely have as little scrum contact as possible, force lineout turnover ball and use their sensational backs.
Most teams, Southern Hemisphere teams included, will agree that Ireland have the best centre combination in the world. Yannick Jauzion of France and Stirling Mortlock of Australia are great players, but there is no combination better than Ireland's. D'Arcy, although not huge, plays the power role, exceptional at breaking the gain line which, by however little, frees Brian O'Driscoll to use his searing pace and cut through or get around defences. Strong man at inside centre and legs at outside centre, perfect.
The key for a successful Irish tilt at this year's world cup, which would really mean making into the top eight, is getting out of their Pool group first, no easy feat. Ireland have been dealt a cruel group, not only being seeded with hosts France and world ranked team Argentina, but also in the fact that they have two easy games and then two hard ones back to back. The ideal draw is to have an easy game to start, then a harder one, then an easy one and so on. Eddie O'Sullivan will not risk his first team players against Namibia – well he wouldn't have done a month ago, but because of Ireland's poor warm up he may be forced to give the likes of David Wallace and Brian O'Driscoll some game time especially against Georgia.
The problem is that the Irish team is already lacking some confidence and they really need to play together as a unit as much as they can, that was to be the purpose of the lead up games, now they most hope it magically comes right in the big matches, a risky strategy. Against Scotland and then significantly against Italy, Ireland looked rusty, spilling ball, missing first up tackles and kicking poorly – not the confidence boosting dress rehearsal Eddie O'Sullivan was looking for.
A winning team needs positive momentum going into this cup – just look at France and South Africa who cruised to confident wins against Wales and Scotland respectively. The only positive from Ireland's point of view is that they have not become a poor team overnight, and while they have some niggling injury worries, no body has withdrawn. Even while they played badly against Italy they still won.
Ireland in Roy Keane speak must now forget about the last 3 months, and concentrate on when they were playing well. Ireland cannot afford to question their ability at this late stage for if they do they are lost. Ireland can still beat any team on their day and they know it, they must be arrogant, confident and believe in themselves. In the recent world athletic championships the great Michael Johnston said he could always tell a winner by his eyes, glazed and focused. All of the Irish team must now focus on the half full glass rather than the half empty one, their talismanic captain will be back in harness, and their scrum will improve.
Ireland will beat Argentina of that I have no doubt, and they have the ability to take France as well albeit if the host have the crowd behind them then this will be a massive task. Ireland must approach every game now as their last because any slip up will mean another Lens debacle and that won't sit with an Irish fan base that believed Ireland could win this world cup six months ago – now they don't know what to believe. How times have changed.
Ireland to qualify but lose to France, then a game against the all Blacks in Cardiff -hmmm.