The men in green must learn the lessons of four years ago if they are to fulfil their potential, says Katie Field
Looking at Ireland’s World Cup record, the less said about the 2007 tournament the better. With that year’s Triple Crown under their belts and a team packed with talent, Ireland looked odds-on to challenge the southern hemisphere giants for the Webb Ellis Cup.
However, they returned from France as the only one of the home nations sides still to never have got beyond the quarter-finals and – even worse – having failed to even get out of their group for the first time.
It’s a period of their history they would love to erase from the memory banks – but as the vast majority of the squad from 2007 are preparing to fly to New Zealand, if they don’t learn from the mistakes of four years ago there is a danger of repeating them.
Ireland’s 2007 squad should have been the best prepared ever. The players had enjoyed four years of cosseting by the Irish Rugby Union, with long pre-seasons, rest periods and improved conditioning. Their pack was strong, their backs were formidable – they had so much going for them.
Yet they struggled to beat the two weaker sides in their pool, Namibia and Georgia, and then lost 25-3 to France and 30-15 to Argentina. They finished the pool with a points difference of minus 18, compared to Argentina’s plus 110 and France’s plus 151.
There were rumours of disharmony in the camp, over-training, boredom and a lack of a tactical plan B. In the ensuing months the players and management struggled to explain themselves. One thing was certain – the IRFU’s decision to award coach Eddie O’Sullivan a new four-year contract a week before the tournament looked foolhardy almost before the ink was dry and he went after the 2008 Six Nations.
Declan Kidney has been in charge since the 2008 November Tests and took Ireland to the holy grail of the Grand Slam in 2009. Now it’s his first World Cup at the helm. Ireland begin their Pool C campaign against the USA on 11 September. They will need to get all the impetus they can as next up are group favourites Australia, on 17 September. Kidney will have the chance to use the depth of his squad for the next game as it’s against the minnows from Russia, before Ireland conclude their pool matches with a potentially massive clash against Italy in Dunedin on 2 October.
There are plenty of factors in Ireland’s favour and their 24-8 win over England at the end of the Six Nations made a big difference to their perceived World Cup chances. After failing to consistently recapture their Grand Slam form of 2009, Ireland suddenly looked like a force to be reckoned with.
In Brian O’Driscoll they have a captain who is among the world’s all-time greats and the squad has a good mix of youth and experience. Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, David Wallace, Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy are still going strong, while Johnny Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy have all stepped up to the plate. Add to the mix Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip, who were left out last time, and Stephen Ferris, who is twice the player he was when he went to RWC 2007, and it’s clear Ireland have a wonderful blend.
Their strength in depth has improved too. As Kidney said at the end of the Six Nations: “We won the Grand Slam with not a whole lot of players. Now, we have a broader base. We can cope with a few bangs and knocks. If somebody doesn’t turn up for work, we’re better equipped to carry that.”
One area which has been of long-standing concern is the scrum, but even that looks healthier now, with Mike Ross partnering an ever-improving Healy in the front row.
England manager Martin Johnson summed it up nicely by saying: “Ireland are in a good place. In 2007 they had a hugely disappointing World Cup, so a lot of their guys know it’ll be their last go at the World Cup, which is not a bad way to go into it. They have a huge amount of experience in their team and some good young guys have come through as well. Their front row stood up pretty well, and they have good options at both scrum-half and fly-half.”
So, what are Ireland’s causes for concern? The fact many of their squad suffered the horrors of the last World Cup might be a strength or a weakness, depending on how they handle it mentally. They couldn’t deal with the pressure of being among the favourites last time, so how will the old stagers cope with the burden of having just one final shot at World Cup glory?
Another worry is Italy’s improving form. Yes, they finished last in the Six Nations but they beat France and Ireland only avoided defeat thanks to a late O’Gara drop-goal. If Italy build up some momentum in the pool they will give Ireland a run for their money.
Ireland rose to fourth in the IRB world rankings at the end of March, with only the Tri-Nations sides ahead of them. So Kidney has great raw ingredients to work with – but he must make sure the camp is happier than four years ago. That might inspire more performances like the one Ireland produced against England.
“The World Cup only comes up once in four years,” says Kidney. “It’s important we look forward to it because guys are going to be in hotels for a long time. If we can enjoy the experience then the way we played against England, with improvements in certain areas, can happen again.”
Ireland’s World Cup record Ireland in numbers
1987 Quarter-final IRB world ranking 4th
1991 Quarter-final Clubs 221
1995 Quarter-final Registered players 153,080
1999 Quarter-final play-off Senior male players 25,440
2003 Quarter-final Referees 2,380
2007 Group phase
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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