Historically, Ireland have disappointed at World Cups, having never made is past the quarterfinal stage. In 2011, they managed to top the pool with a fantastic win over Australia, but once again failed to progress past the last eight after losing to Wales. However, this Irish team has reason to be optimistic about their chances going into 2015 for a number of reasons.
First, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve been placed in Pool D, which is one of the easiest with only France posing a serious threat to Ireland’s quest for top spot. Italy have proven themselves to be a credible opponent in recent years, but they’ve only bested Ireland once in their last twenty games, and that was in the friendly confines of the Stadio Olimpico back in 2013. Finish top, and the draw for the rest of the tournament is winnable, with games against Argentina in the quarterfinals, and whoever emerges top of the Wales/England/Australia bloodbath in the semifinals. With New Zealand lying in wait for the runner-up, Ireland’s final game against France is essentially a knockout game of its own.
They also have familiarity on their side, as the current Irish squad has remained relatively unchanged from the side that won both the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations. Unlike England or Wales, who’ve had to change their style of play due to suspensions and injuries, Ireland’s ruthlessly efficient brand of rugby has been developing for the best part of two years. Not only that, it’s a style that minimises errors, and places an emphasis on territory, aggressive defence, and kicking penalties, the same blueprint that England rode to two finals in 2003 and 2007. In tight games, Ireland will take confidence in the fact that their style of play is designed to grind out results, and they have been winning games and titles this way for the last two years.
In the squad, they have the perfect blend of youth and experience. Veterans of World Cups past like Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip in the pack, alongside Sexton, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney in the backline will provide an experienced spine to the side that will allow young talents like lock Iain Henderson and centre Robbie Henshaw to blossom. The only issue with the squad is the depth at scrum-half, with Joe Schmidt only opting for Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan with fly-half Ian Madigan providing emergency cover if needed. Murray sustained his third concussion this year against England, and while Reddan will deputise capably whilst Murray recovers, any injury to Reddan would seriously jeopardise Irish hopes, particularly when Murray’s health remains an issue.
Ireland will also be worried that their Six Nations winning defence looked a little porous in the warm-up games, with Wales pushing over their pack to score in Dublin, while England both ran and jumped over Simon Zebo at Twickenham. During the Six Nations, the Irish defence thrived in their own 22, either winning penalties or forcing opponents into mistakes after multiple phases of play. But warm-up games aren’t the most accurate indicators of future performance, and when the World Cup rolls around and Ireland have their strongest side on the field, it would be reasonable to assume their defence will eventuallyget back to the level we saw during the Six Nations.
Ireland have every reason to be bullish heading into the World Cup. Their game, when in full flow, is difficult to build any sort of attacking momentum against, and their squad – outside of the issue at scrum-half – is as settled as it can possibly be this close to the tournament. Everything has aligned for Ireland to make it past the quarterfinal stage for the first time providing they beat France first. They’ve flattered to deceive in years past, but this year should be something different for a team that has been building for this tournament for a long time.
Key Man: Johnny Sexton
Ireland have built their entire side around Sexton’s kicking game. Their forwards are strong at the lineout and their back three are relentless when chasing kicks. His goal kicking is always dependable, and he’s a proven performer under pressure. If Ireland rediscover their defensive prowess, Sexton could very well kick them into the later stages of the World Cup.
Best Case Scenario:
Sexton kicks for territory, O’Brien wins a penalty, Sexton kicks the resulting penalty, the defence wins the ball back, repeat until in the final. And hope someone has the good grace to knock New Zealand out.
Worst Case Scenario:
The Irish forwards can’t match the physicality of the French pack and finish second in the pool, resulting in a date with New Zealand in Cardiff, another quarterfinal exit, and a very short journey home across the Irish Sea.