WITHOUT wanting to put a dampener on the World Cup hopes of Ireland there is no escaping that they have not managed to get past the quarter-finals in any tournament so far – and that to get to a semi-final this time they will have to beat either New Zealand or South Africa.
You have to say that with not many of their top players playing as well as they can there are now big question marks over their ability to do so.
It is not so much a question of what they are capable of doing, as it is of where they are in terms of form going into this tournament. At the moment they look miles away from where they were when they beat New Zealand last autumn in Dublin.
If you look at the way New Zealand bounced back from defeat by Australia to smash them in the return game, or the way that South Africa played to win the Rugby Championship title, it is clear they are both looking good going into the World Cup.
In the Pool stage Ireland have to get past Scotland, and they will also have to beat host nation Japan – who will be a threat. In 2015 Japan were unfortunate not to get through to the quarter-finals, and this time on home soil they will be super-motivated.
It is a tough ask for Ireland to get back on track so quickly after the massive defeat they suffered against England, although it is also important to recognise that without lock James Ryan and fly-half Johnny Sexton they did not have two of their key players at Twickenham.
Ryan is still very young, but he has earned the right to be called world-class. He would not be one of the first names on a World XV team sheet in the same way as New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick – who can do all the second row hard graft as well as throw reverse passes – or Maro Itoje, but he is very important to Ireland.
Another Irish forward who has disappeared, but in a different way, is CJ Stander. The Munster No.8 made a huge impact with his carrying in the Irish win over New Zealand less than a year ago, but a few months later in the Six Nations against England his influence was minimal – and the same was true at Twickenham at the end of August.
Better news is that Tadhg Furlong continues to impress at tight-head.
Ireland’s big autumn victories over New Zealand and South Africa were built around the 9-10 partnership of Conor Murray and Sexton. Sexton’s importance is less about the goals that he kicks than the tactical dominance he can impose on a game. The main focus on Sexton now is whether he can play the full 80 minutes regularly in Japan or whether he will continue to be hampered by injuries.
We do not know whether Joey Carbery is fully fit again as cover for Sexton at 10, but there’s a lot to like about him. He makes breaks, kicks goals, and runs the game well.
I can remember when Irish coaches were criticised for holding on to Ronan O’Gara for too long rather than playing Sexton, and now maybe it’s the same with Sexton and
Carbery. There’s also talk about Jack Carty after Ireland’s warm-up win in Cardiff, but he is not really tried and tested.
It’s very difficult to see why Ireland coach Joe Schmidt would not have a side that is fully maxed-out in terms of conditioning. The Irish strength and conditioning is centrally run, and they are monitored very carefully.
That is why it is surprising that there are so many questions over whether Sexton is ready to play, or whether 37-year-old captain Rory Best is about to fall off the cliff just before the World Cup.
England were described as OAPs in 2003, but they soon zipped the lips of the people saying that. In the same way, I would not be surprised if the form that Ireland showed in beating New Zealand twice came back, because guys like Cian Healy, Best, Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, Murray, Sexton, Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Rob Kearney have been there, done it, and should know how to do it again.
The main selection controversy was Schmidt’s decision to leave out lock Devin Toner, especially as the Irish line-out was dysfunctional against England and it usually goes well when he is in there.
We know how much detailed work goes into the line-out, and there are not many who follow Ireland who would have left Toner out. It is a big call, but my sense is that Toner might be what’s called an “era player”, in the same way that a similarly very tall lock like Martin Bayfield was.
Bayfield fitted in at a particular time for England, and with Ireland playing very much a possession game and recycling quickly, maybe Toner’s era has gone. He has worked incredibly hard to get to the World Cup, but maybe Schmidt sees something that no-one else sees.
As for the criticism of bringing in the South African-born Jean Kleyn instead of Toner, with Stander and Aki already in the side this project player stuff is nothing new in Ireland – or in Wales, Scotland or England.
Scotland are the main rivals for the Irish in the World Cup Pool, and, after the Scots lost to them at Murrayfield in the last Six Nations, the difference between the two teams in the world rankings suggests that Ireland win that game.
Normally you would expect the Irish pack to put too much pressure on the Scots for fly-half Finn Russell to be able to cut loose. The issue for Scotland coach Gregor Townsend is that Russell is an attacking 10 who only seems to know how to play one way.
Ireland are also a good counter-attacking side, and have the option of a powerful midfield trio if they picked Sexton, Aki and Henshaw.
On the wings an in-form Stockdale is very dangerous, and Jordan Larmour is a tricky runner to pin down. At full-back there are some question marks against Rob Kearney, but he is still very good under the high ball – and there will be a lot of that in the World Cup.
However, the Irish do not go into the World Cup with the same confidence as Wales, who have a tried-and-tested shape to their game.
The Welsh have world-class players in Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies and George North. They believe they are the fittest team in the world, and they have a proven world-class goal-kicker in Leigh Halfpenny, as well as a comprehensive competitor in Dan Biggar.
Their main challenge will be if AWJ gets injured – but what they have in their favour is that their will do to well is very strong. Like the Jedi they believe the force is with them.
Fitness and defence are great blocks to build on in a World Cup, and I would not be surprised if Wales got to the final – whereas I’d be surprised if Ireland got past the quarter-finals.