FAST start is key if Ireland are to shake off tag of underachievers, writes Iain Morrison
THE year was 2007 and Ireland were living high on the hog. They had finished that season’s Six Nations inches behind France, who won it on points difference after both teams finished with four wins from five games. Eddie O’Sullivan had just been awarded a long contract extension before the World Cup even kicked off and he personified the nation’s rugby; neither was terribly lovable but there was no arguing with the results.
It was an era of “O’s”. The combined brawn of Donnacha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell filled the boilerhouse and the twin veterans Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll in the midfield. This was a seriously good Ireland team, the flowering of the nation’s much vaunted “Golden generation”, when Munster and Leinster almost had a monopoly on the European Cup with five wins between them in the space of seven years.
The World Cup was in France that year and Ireland expected like never before. In fact the Irish fans demanded and, with Namibia in the same pool, what they demanded was a cricket score. What they got was an error-strewn, patchy performance that veered towards the shambolic before teetering back from the abyss to finish with a scrappy 32-17 win. It was Namibia’s best-ever World Cup result; France later stuck 87 points on the minnows.
The match against Georgia was worse. Much, much worse. They didn’t take the lead until the 54th minute and in the finale Ireland were holding on to a four-point advantage like a drunk clings on to the dregs in his whisky tumbler with surgery required to prise his fingers off the glass. They hung on, if only just, but Ireland were duly sent home in the quarter-finals, which remains the furthest outpost in the World Cup that they have ever visited.
Combine that with an exit before the quarter-finals in 1999 and Ireland have the worst World Cup history of any of the home nations. One journalist recently wrote with barely disguised incredulity, “even Scotland have bettered that”. The question is “why?” and it is not an easy one to answer.
There have been errors along the way, which may be stating the bleeding obvious. The IRFU took players out of the club game in 1987 to keep them injury free but that tactic backfired. The union and the players had a stand-off in 1991 on the issue of intellectual property rights and, by his own admission, O’Sullivan almost certainly undercooked his squad prior to RWC’07 but that doesn’t explain away a four-point victory against a country that boasts fewer rugby players than Connacht.
Four years ago, Ireland bumped into an inspired Welsh side who went on to give France a fright in the semis but even then a 22-10 win over the Eagles at the pool stages does not suggest overwhelming superiority.
So what about this time? Many punters look at the draw, study Ireland’s recent form against France and lump some cash on them getting to the semi-finals at least. They may well be right. Ireland have a well-balanced squad of players that topped the Six Nations table in the last two years and they boast an astute coach in Mike Schmidt but, even in the absence of their skipper Tyler Ardron, Canada will prove doughty competitors and doughty has done for Ireland in the past.
Of course Ireland should be far too strong for the Canucks and the Azzurri but if they are focusing too much on that decisive match against France there is a danger they perform poorly and after a sluggish start Ireland will struggle to regain the initiative, just as Scotland did four years ago. Momentum is all.
The other danger is that Johnny Sexton comes a cropper. The stand-off is the cog around which this Ireland team operates and he is skating on pretty thin ice. He missed the start of the Six Nations thanks to one too many bangs on the head, actually thanks to four too many bangs on the head since that is what he suffered in the space of 12 months. Another knock and Sexton is looking at a 24-week holiday on the beach of his choice… possibly even a permanent one.
“Past performance is no predictor to the future”, is what they warn you when investing your money in the financial markets and the same is true of sport. Ireland have a fighting chance of breaking new ground in this World Cup but a semi-final appearance will almost certainly require a win over France in the pool stages and, despite recent history, that is not a given.