Alan Quinlan is backing Ireland to learn from the mistakes of their disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign, provided they can get off to a strong start in New Zealand.
The former Munster back-rower, who featured in two World Cups for Ireland, believes that the boys in green can exorcise their demons come September despite failing to qualify from their pool at the last tournament, thanks to a rise in the standard of Irish rugby in recent years.
“The players can take confidence after the last few years having won Heineken Cups and Grand Slams,” says Quinlan, who hung up his own boots in May. “2007 was a huge disappointment for everyone involved and for all of Irish rugby, and a good start to the tournament will be key this time around. They need to perform with a high intensity in their first few games.
“Declan Kidney is a very shrewd coach,” Quinlan continues. “They will be preparing for the tournament mentally, and they will speak about ’07. I think they’ve learned their lessons.”
Having been accused of being undercooked before heading to France four years ago, Ireland have set up four warm-up Test matches in August. They face Scotland at Murrayfield and France in Bordeaux before hosting France and England at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, and Quinlan says it’s crucial to strike a balance between being well prepared, and avoiding costly injuries.
“The Tests will be very physical in August, and there is a danger that players will pick up injuries,” admits Quinlan. “Ireland don’t have the strength in depth of some of the bigger nations, so it’s especially important for them to keep all their players fit.”
Ireland’s two biggest teams have enjoyed successful seasons, with Munster winning the Magners League and Leinster the Heineken Cup, but Quinlan believes one of the star players of this year’s World Cup could come from Ulster.
“I just have a feeling that Stephen Ferris could make a big impact,” says Quinlan. “He’s been injured for a long time, but I think Kidney could start him because he is phenomenally powerful and a great athlete, and provides a great lineout option. That’s tough on Sean O’Brien though, who’s the European Player of the Year and also very physical.
“Another key player will be Jamie Heaslip. He’s been in fantastic form all season, although he had a minor dip at the start of the Six Nations, but he’s a very important component in the side.
“The fly-half dilemma is an enviable one for Ireland to have, and Johnny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara certainly bring out the best in each other. When Rog started against Scotland in the Six Nations he played fantastically well, but then look what that did for Johnny’s game when he came back to start against England. I’d pick Sexton to start, but it does depend on what sort of game Kidney wants to play. Sexton plays an expansive game in attack, but Rog has got a great kicking game. That pressure drives you to play better, and it’ll make those two get the best out of themselves.”
Whoever Kidney picks in his starting line-up, Quinlan says there is no doubt about the standard that is expected of Ireland today.
“To reach the quarter-finals is a minimum requirement for Ireland and all the home nations,” says Quinlan. “What you need in World Cups is experienced players, and I think the teams with the most experience will be successful at the tournament.”
Alan Quinlan will be co-commentating for ITV at the World Cup.