A QUESTION I have been asked, time and time again over the last few months, is: ‘Can Ireland win the World Cup?’
The answer I give is: ‘Of course they can, but the odds of them doing so are highly unlikely’.
Beating the All Blacks is fine but they are only judged once every four years and that is on a World Cup stage. All other competitions and tours are completely irrelevant.
We have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals and if we do manage to get out of our pool on this occasion, we are going to meet the All Blacks or South Africa, depending if we finish first or second. With what I saw in the warm-up games, I believed we peaked two years too early.
After the trip to Japan, some unsuccessful coaches will get P45s as soon as they return. Some players’ reputations will also be left in tatters while others will depart the Land of the Rising Sun as modern-day gladiators.
If you were to go on the world rankings, the IRFU should be purchasing the fireworks and booking the open-top bus. I think it is fair to assume that everyone knows that this current ranking structure is a bit false.
Yes, Ireland are the number one ranked team but are they really the best team in the world? I don’t think so, and we will find out very soon.
In Ireland’s pool, we have Scotland, Japan, Samoa and Russia. It is unquestionably the easiest of pool draws we have ever had in any World Cup but there is a big level of caution that must be applied here.
I am not one bit worried about Russia or Samoa, apart from the fear of picking up a few injuries. Ireland’s second game will be against the home nation and for that very reason alone, Joe Schmidt will need to put forward his strongest team possible.
In a squad of 31, former All Black Jamie Joseph who now coaches this Japanese group, has chosen 16 players who were not born in Japan and this is what sends alarm bells ringing for me. This Japan side will ask massive questions of Ireland’s fitness levels and commitment to the cause.
Most of these non-national players who will don the cherry and white colours of Japan derive from the islands of the south seas and that means they are big, resilient and their muscles are made up of those fast and angry twitch fibres that contribute significantly towards making superlative athletes. Japan caused the biggest upset in World Cup history when in 2015 they beat the mighty South Africans.
Now to Sunday’s opener against a nation that has caused Ireland many problems. At best, I would rate our chances against Scotland as 50/50.
Hopefully, the inclement weather due will hold off and the match will form a solid foundation for Schmidt and his players to regain much of the confidence they lost in the warm-up games before departing.
Apart from Robbie Henshaw, all other members of Schmidt’s squad were fit and available for selection so there can be no excuses offered after this game.
This is a must-win game for Ireland and the capabilities of doing so are well within their range of competencies.
The axis between Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will need to be slick and commanding. They will need to regain the kind of form that helped Ireland be crowned Grand Slam champions two years ago.
I would expect Sexton to sit a little bit deeper in the pocket which will allow him a bit more time to find space in behind Scotland’s very dangerous back three. Kick poorly against a player with Stuart Hoggs running proficiencies and he will cut any defensive formation to shreds.
I can only hope that Conor Murray has been saving his best for now because what he has produced over the last few months has been well below how an international scrum-half needs to function.
What Murray needs to do is have a look at where he was a few years ago when he wasn’t afraid to have a snipe around the fringes. Currently, he is just a box-kicker and a passer of the ball which are traits that all number nines can bring to the party. What makes a good scrum-half a great one is all the extra bits they can offer. We need him to be at his very best over the coming weeks.
I believe Ireland have worked relentlessly on fixing their line-out issues and we can expect to see a few new options in how they go about securing their own ball. If for any reason this facet of the game fails, we will struggle to win.
If this game turns out to be close and we need to find something special in the dying moments, I don’t think we have the players or the gameplan to find it.
As we all know at this stage, Joe Schmidt is very reluctant to allow his players step outside his blueprint and I believe in order to win a World Cup you must tolerate a cohort of players who are not afraid to take risks. The only players who I can think of, at this moment, who are capable of this, are Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo and one of this pairing are currently watching proceeding from their home in Paris.
For now, all we can do is take one game at a time to see how far the cards we are dealt can take us.
However, the one thing I won’t tolerate is excuses because if you can’t prepare for a competition over a four-year period, you should not be there and it will be very interesting to see how the departing Schmidt deals with the pressure.