Friday 28 October 2016

Brent Pope: Ireland have no excuses this time around

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

There can be no excuses for Ireland this year. They have the best draw of any team in the competition; a team in rude good heath with no serious injuries as yet, and Ireland go into this year's RWC as back to back Northern Hemisphere Champions.

If they do not succeed in making it to at least the holy grail of a semi-final, it will be a psychological barrier rather than a physical one.

Coach Joe Schmidt will tell his team "if you are good enough to beat nearly every rugby nation in the world over the last year or two, win back to back Six Nations titles against the best teams this side of the equator, then you can win this.

This year's event is being billed as perhaps the most open World Cup in history, with as many as six or even seven teams harbouring realistic ambitions of getting their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup.

Two-times winners New Zealand, South Africa and Australia want to make it three, while England, Ireland, and France desperately want to pull one back and arrest southern hemisphere domination.

This is the Olympics of the oval ball game, where nothing you have done previously really matters, it's all about the here and now. Could it be the Irish who prevail?

With an astute coach, a talismanic captain, and a world-class pair of halfbacks, Ireland must harbour serious aspirations of getting to a final and ending a history of serious underachievement at rugby's top table.

The World Cup has come a long way since its humble inception back in 1987, when amateur teams, headed back to their day jobs after the tournament and professionalism wasn't even a twinkle in an administrator's eye.

Years later the new breed of player is buffed up, beefed up and seriously wealthy, not soccer wealthy, but some of the elite players are still millionaires from the game.

The rugby-mad tourists will pour millions of pounds into the English coffers, and it is no wonder that Ireland will mount a serious bid for the 2023 tournament.

Irelands draw could not have been sweeter for Joe Schmidt and his team, a chance to ease his team into the group while the other group heavyweights, France, face a stern opener from Italy who also harbour ambitions of their own and have a decent record against the French in recent years.

The French then have to lay Romania just four days later. French coach Philippe Saint Andre has already said that is a major problem - he must play his key players but on the other hand can't afford to risk injuries either.


Ireland have the luxury of a week off between games, and that will stand to them given that the one main aspect of doing well in this tournament is keeping key players fit.

Despite form not really playing any significance coming into a tournament like this, just look at France over the years - losing to Tonga in 2011 yet making the final.

Ireland do come into the tournament a little below par in the last month. It seems that I am not the only one that is a little worried about Ireland's strategy to peak against France later in the tournament. Ben Kay, the former World Cup winning English second-row also feels the same.

"It's a risky strategy if you can't get the confidence" Kay told the media this week. However, he did go onto to say that "Ireland probably has one of the best styles to win a World Cup, not exciting to watch, and with the high ball to the fore, but the most settled man management plan".

Other pundits will tell you that you can't hope to win a modern World Cup without scoring tries. Maybe Kay is emotionally re-living the kick-at-all-cost game that won finals for England and South Africa?

Despite Joe Schmidt saying that "this weekend's opener against Canada is a potential banana skin", it can't be viewed like that by Ireland. This is a game to field your best side and put down a marker.

Teams and players often only remember their last game, so a good win here for Ireland is crucial.

Canada are ranked just 18th in the world, and they need to finish at least third in their group to qualify for Japan in four years, so they obviously target Romania and perhaps Italy as their must-win games. For them, expending all their energy and efforts against Ireland would be foolish - unless Ireland let the Canadians into a game they have no right to be in.

Am I speaking like an All Black? Yes, you have to be ruthless. Ireland need to start this game a lot better than they did against England and Wales in the last month and then hammer home an emphatic win.

The Canadians have slipped as a rugby nation over the years simply due to the same restrictions that face many of the minnows of their game.

Canada will present with a mix of a few professionals plying their trade out of their country and bunch of amateur club players who will die for their national jersey. In a modern game they will soon run out of puff and invention.

Schmidt has run with as close to a full strength selection as he can muster. Prop Cian Healy need game time and starts on the bench.

Schmidt also needs to find his best centre combination, with Luke Fitzgerald in for the injured Robbie Henshaw against the Canadians. And the team needs to start scoring tries.

A bonus-point win for Ireland, no injuries and more significantly for one of the tournament favourites, set down a market that they are here to win.

Ireland by at least 30 points.

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