Ireland dug deep to defeat Australia 26-23 on Saturday to complete three wins from three in their Autumn series, which meant it was Ireland’s first November clean sweep since 2006.
As 2015 beckons, focus now turns to the World Cup. It may be taboo to even mention, but nonetheless, the question must be now posed – can Ireland capture the Webb Ellis Cup?
When Ireland faced into 2007, third in the world following victories over South Africa and Australia, there was a sense of optimism that Eddie O’Sullivan’s side could go a long way in France. This of course never materialised, as they went crashing out in the group stages. However, in 2007 we had a team; seven years later we have a squad.
O’Sullivan did not enjoy the depth at the disposal of Joe Schmidt. O’Sullivan did not place his faith in many outside of the starting 15. In fact, only 18 players appeared in the starting XV over the four games. If Ireland are to challenge in England next year, the top players could do without 80 minutes against Canada and Romania. Following the wins over the Springboks and Wallabies this month, Schmidt can now be confident that his fringe players are more than capable of delivering when called upon.
In fact, the only injuries which would significantly hamper Ireland would be to Jonny Sexton or Mike Ross. While there is no Ward/Cambell or O’Gara/Humphreys style rivalry at present, Ireland can still be comfortable with the back-up at out-half.
Ian Madigan starts as the substitute 10, bringing a different brand of play to that of Sexton, and can change the pace of a game in the second half. But if Sexton were to miss a game, Schmidt may opt for Ian Keatley or Paddy Jackson, providing a more composed kicking game. In this regard, Ireland could cope with a loss of the first choice fly-half.
As for tight-head prop, Mike Ross holds the hopes of a nation. Scrums are going to have a major say in a World Cup in the Northern Hemisphere. While Jack McGrath has proven to be more than capable of filling in for Cian Healy at loose-head, we do not have the same standard of cover at the other side of the scrum.
A shoulder injury cost Marty Moore the valuable chance to prove to the Irish management that he is capable of filling in for Ross, but he will get his chance in the coming months. Leinster’s 22 year-old Tadhg Furling may also have a say if he impresses with the province during the year. Therefore, Ireland do seem as dependent on Ross as they were with John Hayes during the O’Sullivan era.
Of course depth alone does not win a World Cup, a team made up of World Class players does. At present, in Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton, and Rob Kearney, Ireland boast players who would start on any team in the world when fit and in form.
Schmidt has implemented a game-plan to gel this team together. The rigid defence has been outstanding. The discipline at the breakdown paired with choke tackles when appropriate make it difficult for teams to score. With much space to improve with the set-pieces, Ireland have areas to work on throughout the Six Nations, but have time to do this. There is no fear of peaking too early.
So Ireland are traveling with a strong squad. But what about the opposition? The only top sides Ireland have failed to overcome in the Schmidt era are England and New Zealand who are 4/1 and 6/4 respectively.
Stuart Lancaster’s England are not where you want to be ten months out from a World Cup. Despite home advantage, the prospect of facing the Red Rose will not instill fear in the hearts of many. Owen Farrell is not delivering at out-half, and simply, Lancaster’s men do not even nearly resemble World Cup winners.
Meanwhile, the All-Blacks have looked slow this Autumn, despite three victories. At times, they struggled to deal with the Northern Hemisphere style of rugby. They too have had problems at fly-half, and if Dan Carter does not recapture his form, having returned from injury, they are in trouble.
During the trip to Murrayfield, the Rugby Championship winners looked frustrated by Scotland’s possession game, and were it not for tame back play, the Scots would have recorded a famous win. But Vern Cotter’s blueprint has shown that there is a way to trump the Kiwis without fighting fire with fire, and teams will draw hope from that.
The draw was favourable to Ireland. Grouped with Romania, Canada, Italy, and France, it is a pool we should top. The Cardiff showdown with France is essential, considering the permutations of the quarter-finals. Win and the tournament opens up. Lose, and New Zealand lie in wait.
But focusing on the positives, if Ireland are to top Pool D, they will likely be on the opposite side of the draw to New Zealand, France, South Africa, and the second placed team from Pool A, containing Wales, England, and Australia.
With four of the major forces of World Rugby pitted against each other, Schmidt’s forces could be confident of striding through to the decider. Simply, the hopes of a nation hinge on the October 11th showdown with Les Bleus.
In 2011, Ireland did not travel with a realistic ambition to win the tournament, due to poor form, location, and the small factor of an All-Blacks side at home and at the peak of their powers. In 2007, a number of factors dictated that it was not meant to be. At the dawn of 2015, there is a sense of optimism. It may be early days, but nonetheless a reality. Ireland can win the World Cup.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena