2015 World Cup Countdown: Ireland’s World Cup preparation gets underway against Barbarians
As the back-to-back Six Nations champions reflect briefly on another successful season, Ireland and all the other participating countries realise that they will have little time to recharge their efforts for this year’s World Cup competition this Autumn.
Already team captain Paul O’Connell has talked down Ireland’s chances of winning the William Webb Ellis Trophy but there is no doubt that the men in green are surely better equipped than ever to progress beyond the quarter-final stage.
A step up in psychological pressure
And in order to do so, Ireland will need to “step-up in psychological pressure” to become genuine World Cup contenders. But Joe Schmidt’s men “have the capacity” to win the autumn’s World Cup – but only if they hold their nerve and if they face hosts England in the semi-final then they have every chance of at least a place in the Twickenham final itself.
But how can Ireland scale the mental hurdle that accompanies what would represent the “uncharted territory” of contesting a first-ever World Cup semi-final. Former Ireland international and rugby pundit Shane Horgan believes that this will be Ireland’s major off-field problem. “I think Ireland have the capacity to win the competition and if you look at the potential draw they have, they’ve got one big northern hemisphere game against France. That would put them into a quarter-final against Argentina, then it could be a semi-final against England, and anything can happen from there,” said Horgan.
But not having progressed beyond the quarter-final previously could also be a problem for Ireland. But Horgan also believes Ireland’s tournament-winning experience at both club and Test level leaves Schmidt’s squad better-placed than any in the past for World Cup success.
The 65-cap winger, who was part of the 2007 World Cup “disaster” where Ireland failed to reach the knockout stages, that sowed the seed for Eddie O’Sullivan’s departure, insists Ireland will approach this year’s World Cup a team transformed, now equipped to reach that elusive first semi-final, and move further still.
“A team has to be able to deal with the psychological side of things but our team in 2007, who won a number of Triple Crowns, hadn’t won a championship, but this team do have those kinds of championship wins behind them though,” said Horgan who also added: “The experience of winning back-to-back Six Nations titles is going to stand them in great stead with that.”
The key decision-makers in the key positions, including Murray and Sexton are both performing well, while Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are also at their peak and prime. Ireland’s props are also now at Test level and have successfully filled a huge void since the retirement of John Hayes.
But Shane Horgan also believes that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt ability could also have a big bearing on his team’s progress in this Autumn’s World Cup.
“Joe Schmidt is an exceptional technical coach, and along with all those things combined are providing a successful period for Irish rugby,” concluded Horgan.
Managing and handling expectation better
Apart from the leadership and direction off field much responsibility will also rest on the big shoulders of legendary captain Paul O’Connell. Expected to be his last major tournament along with Gordon D’Arcy, the Limerick man says he is excited by the prospect of making up for previous disappointments and ready for the preparation which begins against the Barbarians on Thursday evening 28 May in Thomond Park. KO 7.45.
“I feel very good about it and I’m really looking forward to it and I also enjoy the way we handle the expectation,” said O’Connell who added: “I’m sure Joe and the management look forward to the bigger picture and that, but as players we’re just encouraged to look at what’s ahead of you and prepare for that as best you can. I’ve the rest of this week off and then hopefully I’m into a three-week run-in, if we’re lucky it could be a four-week run-in.
Just a four-week break awaits Ireland’s playing squad before they’re into pre-season and into the big pre-World Cup friendlies then.
“We are put under a lot of pressure on how we prepare for games and it takes away the distraction of the bigger picture,” said O’Connell.
But the legendary Munster figure also cautions that despite all the optimism around Schmidt’s all-conquering side, the disastrous World Cup campaign of eight years ago should not be forgotten.
“Certainly in 2007 we got engulfed with the expectation of the World Cup and we felt that we had to say we had a chance of winning it, to make ourselves believe it, but I think going into this one we know that we if we do a whole load of things right between now and the World Cup we can put ourselves in with a chance,” cautions O’Connell who added:
“It’s a slim chance and it’s an outside chance. I just think it’s a good way of approaching the competition, it’s a good way of approaching things. It has worked really well for us in the last 18 months under Joe, not getting too obsessed with the bigger picture and focusing on the here and now.”
The lessons from 2007 clearly still haunts the Ireland captain who feels he and others in the squad over-trained for that tournament.
“We were given time off to allow the training to accumulate and I remember chatting to Banjo (Donncha O’Callaghan), Strings (Peter Stringer) and Rog (Ronan O’Gara), we never actually took the time off, we used to go back home and do our own training.”
So the lessons from 2007 will be crucial pointed out O’Connell. “Taking time off is going to be an important thing, that experience, because normally we don’t spend pre-season with Ireland. At World Cups you spend all the time together in Irish camp. You have the top players in the country.”
O’Connell added: “Squad training can become very, very competitive, you end up training very, very hard and if you don’t take your down time and allow the training to accumulate you can end up over-training. That would be the big thing for me in 2007, that I kind of overdid it a little bit and a few of us did it.
“We had such high hopes. Unfortunately, we didn’t perform at all, we didn’t do what we did in 2011 when we played well but lost to a good Welsh team. We just completely flopped and didn’t perform at all. It was just a really disappointing experience in every way.”
And if it is to be the end for the Ireland captain O’Connell is sure to be determined that he’ll go out having given the world’s biggest tournament one helluva crack and hopefully that might just be enough to take Ireland to an historic World Cup final. And once there even a slim chance gives at least some chance of Paul O’Connell lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy.