To win, at least seven Ireland players need the best six weeks of their careers
"We are here to provide you with positive energy, vibes and, most importantly, belief that Ireland are going to win on Sunday. They're going to beat every team that comes in their way and they are going TO WIN THE WORLD CUP!"
So declared Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble, this week, as the Guinness Open Gate Brewery hosted a Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby World Cup launch party.
The former Ireland internationals are heading into the World Cup on the very same page as Brian O'Driscoll - believing that Joe Schmidt's men can return with the Webb Ellis trophy if they get their act together and deliver on four years of steady planning and building towards something big.
Irish rugby goes through a seemingly perpetual four-year-cycle where we underperform at a World Cup, wring our hands, come up with a plan, improve, start to collect big scalps, worry about the impending World Cup and underperform all over again.
You had to feel for the current squad when, days after we beat New Zealand at home for the first time, fans were slotting readily into two camps.
- We're the best in the world and the World Cup is ours
- S**t, we've peaked too soon.
When England rumbled us at the Aviva Stadium in early February, many jumped from Camp 1 to Camp 2. More flooded over the flattened fences when Wales took our best shots at a rain-sodden Principality Stadium and beat us with worrying ease. By the time England buried us 57-15 at Twickenham, the last one out of Camp 1 was asked to switched the light off when he eventually followed.
Joe Schmidt tried to calm our fears with talk of heavy-loading and freak warm-up results but the nation was close to panic mode. Rory Best and CJ Stander took a lot of heat but so, too, did Schmidt. Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton had yet to play and Joey Cabery could still miss out.
Told you so. Told you so.
What was needed was an immediate arrest of Ireland's sliding form. Wales did us a favour by selecting several deputies, hopefuls and outsiders as Ireland looked more recognisable on their return to Cardiff. One week later and senior players from both sides returned, yet Ireland won again.
Warren Gatland complained that it was a far from pretty Irish victory but our fans would care less if Rory Best and his teammates played one-out rugby all the way to the final in Yokohama on November 2.
That victory, more than anything in the past nine months, has shot some belief into Irish fans. Even when Ireland trailed at half-time, the performances of Conor Murray, Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki, Rob Kearney and CJ Stander were clear signals that these men, who have big wins and trophies on their CVs, are rediscovering form as we get down to business in Japan.
This Ireland squad has what it takes to top Pool A with four victories and then take down a southern hemisphere giant. They have beaten New Zealand and South Africa four times our of their last seven meetings, after all. Get beyond the quarter finals, and a world of possibilities open up.
Seeing Conor Murray with some zip back in his pass and Johnny Sexton pulling the strings in attack, raised spirits in that Dublin send-off. The Ireland half backs - like most players in their position - need go-forward ball to thrive [see below]. If they can get that, or even parity, we should see them at their best. Carbery misses out on the opener - as do Kearney, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw - but his return could yet be the winning of the tournament for Ireland.
Win more than you don't. Our three defeats this year have all arrived when our forwards and midfield duo lost the physical battles. James Ryan and Iain Henderson are our starting locks because Schmidt wants this area addressed. That is also why Bundee Aki will start most games in Japan. Again, the Dublin win over Wales was a positive sign with the Irish forwards dominant in every aspect. England may have most fearsome collection of big men in the competition but Ireland would be unlikely to face them until late in the knock-out stages.
Squad must step up
If Dave Kilcoyne (above) can replicate his cannonball feats of the final two warm-up games, this is exactly what we're talking about. In all likelihood, the midweek game against Russia will be when we see almost all the frontliners rested. Rhys Ruddock is set to captain that XV and the Russians should be flagging by then so a 40+ point victory is on. We saw in 2015 how Jordi Murphy and Luke Fitzgerald stepped up for Ireland. 2019 will need the likes of Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Tadhg Beirne and Chris Farrell to take whatever fleeting chances, and starts, they get to make a real impact.
Jordan Larmour is not a surprise element any more but a good start in Japan could tee him off for an amazing six weeks.
Ireland last Dan Leavy [knee] and Sean O'Brien [hip] well before the tournament but their preparations were hampered when the likes of Cian Healy, Carbery, Earls, Henshaw, Rob Herring, Kearney and Sexton all picked up injuries.
One hopes that Ireland get the fitness breaks that deserted them four years ago as the pool stages wrapped up.
At least seven players need to have the best six weeks of their careers
At the end of the 2017 Lions Tour to New Zealand, Graham Rowntree grabbed hold of Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong, out on the pitch, and told him:
"You're a wonderful player. A f**king wonderful player."
Furlong has been at the top of the three for the past three and a half years but he's not the only one. Johnny Sexton is the reigning World Player of the Year, Jacob Stockdale is on-course to smash try-scoring records for his country, Conor Murray is, on his day, the best No.9 in the world and Peter O'Mahony is one of the gnarliest nuisances in Test rugby. James Ryan is ready to confirm himself as one of the very finest locks in the world over the next six weeks.
If Ireland get anything like the standards we now expect from those six players, they will be set for a long run. The World Cup is often remembered for moments of individual genius but if the spine of a starting XV is in form, they are normally the two sides that will make the final.
The All Blacks, in their 2011 to 2019 reign as world champions, won the tight games because they did the basics so well. When Ireland are at the best, you can say likewise. This is a team, remember, that went to England in 2018 and claimed a Grand Slam at Twickenham without breaking sweat.
On top of all that, the scrum has to hold firm and we need to get back to relying on good ball from our lineout. Henderson and Ryan - we are looking at you - no pressure.
As Ireland winger Eimear Considine pointed out during that live House of Rugby show, no team has won a World Cup without winning all seven games.
This, even more so than the Six Nations, is a competition that is all about momentum. Build the wins, build the confidence, avoid the injuries and pray that the close decisions go your way. Do that, and you're closer than ever.
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The latest episodes see Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery look ahead to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and Greg O'Shea join the gang for a massive live show at the Open Gate Brewery.