And so to the pivotal group –from where Irish people are standing at least- where Paul O’ Connell’s side will take their place alongside Canada, Romania, Italy and traditional nemesis France. Our traditional trepidation is setting in which in small doses is a good thing but there is genuine cause for optimism this time around. The draw allows Ireland to progress gradually, hopefully step it up against Italy and then hit something close to peak form for the crucial French game.
While no Rugby World Cup will ever grab the hearts and minds of the nation quite like its soccer equivalent, there is a prevailing feeling that this is the most eagerly anticipated rugby tournament, from a national perspective, ever. Whatever happens, we’ll be playing well into October and if Joe Schmidt’s side do ultimately meet their demise it won’t be for wont of preparation or application or, say, a schism in the squad.
How fitting it would be if Paul O’ Connell’s international send-off was as a World Cup winner in Twickenham on 31st October. Sport, though, while always beguiling doesn’t often do fairy tale endings and Ireland will need everything to go right if they are to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy. Still, exciting to envisage it all the same.
First to our main group rivals, France. Rumour has it that France’s is a happy camp of late and Philippe Saint-Andre’s side has been in World Cup mode for months now. But so has everybody else and they are still only a team. And a pretty mad one at that.
When the draw for Group D was made two years’ ago no Irish fan could hide their delight at the sight of France as the number one seed in our group. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had been avoided and with French rugby is turmoil, actual and not perceived, the prevailing feeling was that while Ireland would grow under the astute guidance of Joe Schmidt, France would continue on their hapless downward spiral under Philippe Saint Andre and a favourable quarter-final against Argentina would be well within Ireland’s reach. Ireland have improved almost beyond recognition –especially considering some notable absentees who we will try our very best not to mention again- while France have continued to confound and frustrate, offering the type of fare that flies in the face of the cavalier, free-spirited French rugby of old.
And yet, on the eve of the 2015 Rugby World Cup a certain disquiet has crept into Irish hearts and minds. Haven’t they annihilated Ireland in our three previous World Cup meetings? And don’t they just turn up at these tournaments boots tossed languidly over their shoulders and do whatever the fuck they want? Lose to Tonga in the group stages? Pas probleme! We’ll just make it all the way to the final and proceed to be screwed out of a maiden World Cup victory by a referee petrified –somewhat understandably- of never making it out of the country let alone being allowed back in!
Ok, we’re being a tad reactionary and more than a little flippant but the realisation has long since dawned that the application of logic and reason based analysis –which, of course, applies in the case of the other nineteen teams at this World Cup- to French rugby is a largely unedifying pursuit. Were any other team to come into this World Cup on the back of two such disappointing international seasons, expectations would be rock-bottom –except in 2007 when we all thought it’d be grand– yet the French have an unsettling capacity to, and there is no other way to describe it, pull out the big performance on the day. Perhaps scrum-half Morgan Parra’s succinct explanation best explains the phenomenon which surrounds Les Bleus, ‘the problem is, we’re French.’ That problem, of course, works both ways.
The two recent performances against England offered up the idea that France were going to bludgeon all-comers, suffocate the life out of their opposition and maintain scoreboard control with a steady flow of kickable penalties. Not a bad thesis statement if you’ve got the ready-made components. And, from one to eight France have just this, their pack illuminated by the endlessly talented Louis Picamoles. Unfortunately for the French things get a little unusual after this. First of all, it’s worth noting that coach Philippe Saint-Andre was, in his playing days, an emblem of everything exuberant, stylish and lethally effective about French rugby. However, in a real head-scratcher and with no little talent at his disposal, Saint-Andre has decided to discard with the spontaneous yet crucially incisive back play so beloved of his countrymen.
It really is hard to understand why players like Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and even underrated full-back Scott Spedding do not get the opportunity to think their way into the gaps, as the French of old once did. In any event, Saint Andre has gone for brute force domination but his grand plan may well fall on the decision to entrust the keys of the juggernaut to the one-time golden boy of French rugby, Frederic Michalak. With obvious competition –or a replacement depending on which way you see it- Francois Trinh Duc bizarrely left at home by Saint-Andre, Michalak, who could very easily be mistaken for the chocolate in a ninety-nine, only has competition from the lightly tried Remi Tales. In a World Cup. Indeed, curiouser and curiouser it gets.
So France have a monster pack, an underrated defence –that wonderful aberration in Twickenham in March aside- and some really dangerous backs who must feel betrayed by this slavish devotion to the prototypical modern playing style. To be fair, size matters more than anything in the modern game, so the longing for diminutive, jinky wingers is really only a whimsical notion these days. Toulon, so dominant in recent seasons have relied on out-muscling their opposition before going for the jugular. France may not have the same personnel as the European champions but, when the time comes we suspect they’ll be ready. A titanic battle awaits in Cardiff on October 11th –on what could yet be a truly momentous day for Irish sport- as the prize at stake is a likely shot at the All Blacks, and these sides may well face each other once more. Ultimately, however much of the French odyssey this autumn will rely on a baffling coach’s decision to choose a less than trustworthy field general.
Player to Watch: The otherworldly Louis Picamoles. Skills of a back allied with gargantuan strength.
The prognosis is not good for the Azzurri. Shorn of attacking talent and overly reliant on an aging pack, still led masterfully by the indefatigable Sergio Parisse –who disastrously misses the opener against France- the Italians look to be well out of their depth alongside northern hemisphere compatriots Ireland and France.
It is only two and a half years –the death knell of Declan Kidney’s reign over Ireland- since the Italians completely overran Ireland in Rome, suggesting their arrival as a perennially competitive side in the Six Nations. Since, however, Jacques Brunel’s side have made little progress, having registered just one victory throughout the last two European winters, or springs if you’re completely deluded.
The pre-World Cup matches are perhaps more misleading than anything but the manner of Italy’s defeat in Murrayfield in August exposed too many gaping cracks. France come first on Sunday but this may actually be no bad thing. The French are slow starters –they lost to Argentina on the opening night in 2007 although we weren’t to know at that point that the Pumas would go to finish third in the tournament- and Italy will assuredly come out with the intention of unsettling their opponents. The problem now however is that France are purpose-built for war so this is Italy’s best weapon neutralised. In any event the loss of their totem may simply be too much to overcome.
Their other decisive game of course comes on 4th October in the soon to be home of West Ham United, Olympic Stadium in east London. And, even after taking caution into account it is very difficult seeing the Italians being victorious in this one either. The Italians will ultimately finish third in this group, comfortably, but it will only be after the outcomes –and the nature of the performances- against their main group rivals that they will be able to surmise whether or not the last four years have seen any tangible improvements.
Prediction: Third in the group.
Player to Watch: As ever, the redoubtable Sergio Parisse.
Unquestionably the most established side in Europe outside of the Six Nations participants. Romania has a rich rugby history and shares the distinction with eleven other sides of having appeared in every World Cup thus far. If Italy’s wheels completely fall off –not that bizarre when you consider Ireland’s undeserved victory over Georgia in 2007- then the Romanians may target a coup but the likelihood is that they will be battling it out with the Canadians for fourth spot. Legendary backrower Ovidiu Tonita will take the field for his fourth World Cup – he was also in the pre-tournament squad in 1999- and we’d be surprised if a hardier soul takes to the field in the next six weeks.
Prediction: Fourth in Group D.
Player to Watch: Ovidiu Tonita. A player whose quality has always stood out, even against the top-tier nations.
With the top two places in this group virtually sewn up, Canada like the Romanians, will really fancy themselves to take more than a cut out of Italy. Canadian pride recently took the worst sort of hit a Canuck can take as they suffered defeat at the hands of their southern neighbours, the USA. Canada would have always fancied themselves the boss in that neck in the woods, so they will be coming out the gap with a bit of fire in their bellies when they face Ireland on Saturday in Cardiff. Captain Jamie Cudmore –who will go toe-to-toe with old sparring partner Paul O’ Connell at the weekend- is the definitive, grizzled campaigner and his cohorts up front will have fashioned their game in the image of their leader.
The pack will scrap manfully but the quality quite simply is not there. Wing DTH van der Merwe will be familiar to Pro 12 followers but the likelihood is that he and the rest of the Canadian back line will be living off scraps for the next month.
Prediction: Fifth in Group D
Player to Watch: Phil McKenzie. Impressive Sale Sharks wing who will look to make the most of any turnover ball that comes his way.
Optimism just does not sit well with the Irish as a nation. Since November 2013, right up until about six weeks ago everything was looking rosy in the newly rejuvenated Irish rugby patch. In the spring we were happy to predict –a bit dreamily to be fair- a world where Paul O’ Connell would lift the William Webb Ellis, having beaten New Zealand of course for the first time in history, with Joe Schmidt granted the freedom of every last square inch of this island. But then, as it often the case, the event horizon grew near and all of a sudden that old gnawing feeling set in: sure we’re Ireland and we don’t win things. Whether we like to admit it or not we have a perverse addiction to getting immediately high on our success and then with the comedown in full flow, morosely predicting our downfall. And then, when it happens, proclaiming fatalistically and with shameful self-knowing that you knew we’d implode at some point.
Rugby, it has to be said, has dealt some cruel blows to Ireland -assuredly we are not the only ones to have been railroaded by misfortune but unsurprisingly we only have pity on ourselves- with Michael Lynagh’s late try in 1991 World Cup semi-final in the old bear-pit on Lansdowne Road unquestionably the stand out World Cup moment of misery.
But at some point this self-doubting, pessimistic safety blanket had to be removed. Joe Schmidt has brought a calm sense of confidence and belief to Irish rugby history and convinced the players –it should be taken as a prerequisite that this is an excellent collective of players- that if they do everything he directs, as close to perfectly as possible, then they can beat anybody on any day. New Zealand was of course proof of Schmidt’s exceptional ability to rally these players, not as before for sixty minutes, but for eighty-three minutes and just a few heart-breaking seconds. While the All Blacks may find it equal parts amusing and flattering to see how a nation could get excited by a defeat the reality is Ireland had cornered New Zealand that day like on no other occasion ever before.
Successive Six Nations victories mean the winning mentality –not our natural preserve- has been effectively fostered and the squad must now for the first time ever be entering a World Cup comfortable with the idea that people are expecting them to hang around until the long evenings come in. In addition, and unlike, say Wales, Ireland have been relatively lucky with the health of their squad and the return –hopefully in the form of some good minutes on Saturday- of Cian Healy is a huge fillip.
The fifteen selected for Ireland’s tournament opener looks for now to be the nominal starting fifteen. Only a brave or mad man could have anticipated Keith Earls or David Kearney filling the wing positions when the Six Nations came to an end but like the seemingly irrepressible Iain Henderson, their form has been rewarded. These selections are not a rebuke to the likes of Simon Zebo and Devin Toner but more an indicator of the fact that at all times places are up for grabs.
We couldn’t talk about Ireland’s chances without mulling over the back line conundrum. As Gordon D’Arcy has already pointed out in his excellent weekly articles, Joe Schmidt values holding possession of the ball over anything else. The directive seems clear: only offload if you know, not think, that the ball is going to a teammates hand. D’Arcy also interestingly pointed to the fact that Schmidt would have the side practice a move maybe only ten times at something like eighty percent efficiency and then entrust the players with the responsibility to effect the move when the game time situation required it. With a flat pre-tournament in the bag let’s hope this is exactly what Ireland have in store for the group decider against France.
The greater worry at the moment is that Ireland were lacking their crisp ball movement and set-piece efficiency in the warm up games. Deep, lateral balkline movement harking back to a less exciting time gave plenty of food for thought but assuredly Ireland have been working on precision –not to mention the puzzlingly sloppy defence- in the past fortnight. Also, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will hope to quickly re-establish what is one of the premier half-back pairings in world rugby.
Canada and Romania will be despatched in the next fortnight but everyone knows the serious stuff –with all due respect to Ireland’s first two opponents- will begin in the Olympic Stadium at the start of October. Nobody is saying that we will definitely win this tournament or that we will even make the decider but for the first time, perhaps ever in Rugby World Cup history, this Irish team –and by extension the Irish people- can realistically look to the tournament with justifiable designs on going all the way to the final weekend.
Player to Watch: Jarred Payne. Cast in at the deep end to replace he who shall be named. Really growing into the position and could be the spark in attack.
Odds: Ireland 9/1