World Cup Preview: Ireland

Group C Opposition: Australia, Italy, USA and Russia

Pedigree: Very disappointing.  Ireland have never been beyond the quarter finals, and have twice been dispatched in the group stages, on both occasions by Argentina.  The only time Ireland went close to a semi-final was when Gordon Hamilton scored that try…

Players to watch: it increasingly looks like all hopes will be pinned on Sean O’Brien.  The Tullow Tank was the outstanding player in Europe this year, and if he can use his explosive carrying ability to blow away Southern hemisphere defences, then we will have a world star on our hands.  He’ll probably have to do it from the openside flank though, where he never appears quite the same player.  In the back division, only Andrew Trimble managed to play his way into the squad.  He’s a strong, hard running wing with much improved feet and hands.

Good tournament: If Ireland can finally make it to a semi-final Deccie will be back in the nation’s good books.

Bad tournament: Ireland should get out of a fairly benign group even if they underperform – if they get to the last eight, but are hammered by both Australia and South Africa, it will go down as a failure.

Prospects: Let’s be honest, they’re not great.  Ireland is a nation of optimists, and the majority of the media spent the summer talking up Ireland’s chances of beating Australia, and setting up a potential path to the semi final and – who knows? – beyond that.  Much of it seemed to be based on Ireland’s performance against England in this year’s Six Nations, when everything appeared to click and Ireland tore England to shred, beasting them up front and playing at a pace that England’s ponderous midfield couldn’t handle. 

But even a cursory glance at the data reveals this game as a complete outlier – Ireland were poor in every single other game this season.  The Autumn series was a wasted opportunity (zero minutes for Mike Ross, one game against Samoa for Sean O’Brien).  In all four other Six Nations games they were ordinary, and in the most recent warm-up games simply abysmal.  Even the Cork Con Mafia are no longer so optimistic.

Kidney’s idiosyncratic selections have bemused us in the past, but the squad selection showed his willingness to make the hard calls.  It’s now a question of gameplan.  The backs, coached by the ageing Alan Gaffney, are playing a wide-wide game with little depth, plenty of lateral running and little penetration.  One-out forwards rumble into contact, and the ball goes back and forth across the pitch.  It’s awful to watch and easy to defend.  It’s Scotland.

Nobody should be fooled into false hope because Ireland have been holding back a few set-piece moves.  The number of times these can be used in a match is not enough to make a huge difference.  Besides, they’ll be Gaffney’s moves, and the current style is Gaffney’s style.  Leinster fans will recognise it from the low try-scoring 2008-2010 era, when he was the backs coach.  Given Ireland’s lack of pace, we would love to see a game based on offloading, support runners and quick recycling – in other words, the game Joe Schmidt brought to Leinster.

Verdict: Ireland generally produce their best when pinned into a corner.  Expect them to run Australia closer than you might expect, but come up short.  The opposite will occur in Dunedin, and the Italy game will be tight.  Ireland should have enough to scrape by, but South Africa in the quarter finals will be a step too far.  A familiar quarter-final exit.

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