Schmidt’s men’s new-found sense of belief can define their tournament

Ireland manager Joe Schmidt

Ireland manager Joe Schmidt

The ‘shadow-boxing’ is over and with convincing wins over Canada and Romania already under their belts Ireland could not be in a better place ahead of the ‘business-end’ of a magnificently run 2015 Rugby World Cup. But until Joe Schmidt’s men actually mix it and continue to ‘take-out’ the big guns of the game some Irish supporters will still have a sense of hope laced with dread because of the country’s poor record in the tournament to date.

No nation has under-performed as consistently on the big stage as ours. At each tournament, there has been at least one moment of sickening disappointment, with 1991 the sole moment when the team could be hailed for dying with their boots on and even then they threw away a golden opportunity against Australia in the quarter-final.

In the early days, it was symptomatic of a dark time in the game in this country, but the revival of the 2000s has rarely been matched when the big guns get together for a shoot-out.

The challenge involved in compiling a list of great Irish World Cup moments exposes the lack of heritage Ireland have in this tournament, but after the momentum gained by a more than satisfactory start over the past two weekends there is real substance to the hope of a best ever World Cup for Ireland this time around.

Back-to-Back Six Nations champions ready to take on the world

Joe Schmidt’s team came into the tournament having won the Six Nations twice in a row. In the New Zealander, they have perhaps the shrewdest coach at the table; in aging colossus Paul O’Connell they have a captain to rival any of the legends brought forth from the southern hemisphere.

Keith Earls scoring against Romania

Keith Earls scoring against Romania

They are operating in the familiar ‘home’ surrounds of Cardiff and London, backed by a large ‘record-breaking’ travelling fan-base despite the extortionate ticket prices. The climate will suit them and, even if the closeness to home lends a certain added pressure, the proximity to family should negate the negative of being away for a long stretch.

But more importantly, perhaps, is that the draw has been kind to Ireland when you consider what’s happening in the Pool A – the Pool of Death where England, Wales, Australia and Fiji have been knocking lumps off each other and where nothing less than a top class performance and victory by England against Australia could see the hosts make the wrong kind of history by bowing out at the qualifying stages.

Ahead of an anticipated victory over Italy in the Olympic Stadium this Stadium Ireland’s extended progress in the tournament will depend so much on their pivotal clash with France at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday week – October 11.

That clash with Les Bleus, who have not beaten Ireland in their last four attempts, will indeed define the Six Nations champions’ tournament. Win, and they likely avoid New Zealand in the last eight. Lose, and the route to the final includes likely clashes with the All Blacks and then the Springboks or quite possibly a rejuvenated Scotland.

While Ireland’s record against Philippe Saint-Andre’s side is strong, there is a sense that the finalists of four years ago are bringing it together at the right time having been together for the summer. They have also made an impressive start to this tournament and it will indeed be a ‘something must give’ clash between the two unbeaten teams on Pool D.

Bigger, leaner and meaner French

France are now bigger, leaner and stronger than ever and, while the guile in their game might be sadly absent, the way they steamrolled England during the closing stages of their first game in Twickenham and then repeated the trick in Paris does not bode well. Yet, their narrow win over Scotland in their final warm-up game brought back the heated criticism of Saint-Andre’s regime before their opening three World Cup victories against Italy, Romania and Canada.

In their last four games, Ireland have drawn with France twice and beaten them in one-score games in the last two meetings. Since reaching the 2011 final, Saint-Andre’s side have managed three fourth-placed Six Nations finishes and were last in 2013.

France's Freddie Michalak

France’s Freddie Michalak

Yet, the French always tend to time their peaks for the World Cup. Their Six Nations performances are routinely undermined by their club game and the cohesion so sorely lacking should be in place after so long in camp.

But crucially Ireland have never beaten France at the World Cup and, so often, it has been the men in blue who have sent Irish sides packing. However Ireland are not likely to accept being the bridesmaids once again and especially on one of their favourite happy hunting grounds backed by the huge local support in Cardiff.

There is little new in Saint-Andre’s locker, with Freddy Michalak leading the backline in his latest incarnation but, for all the scorn laid on the eccentric Toulon half-back, he did see off Ireland previously at the 2003 and 2007 tournaments.

Ireland’s match schedule so far has given them a welcome chance to build the necessary momentum for the Millennium Stadium finale and so far the team has been lucky avoiding serious injuries and a return to top form for all of the playing panel including Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, who were both magnificent against Romania. Simon Zebo is also relishing being more involved and could be the player to provide the ‘X’ factor in close games.

Watching closely will be the All Blacks who struggled to see off Argentina in their opening weekend Wembley meeting before easily negotiating Namibia, Georgia and finally Tonga to comfortably top Pool C.

Although they are undoubtedly the strongest team in the tournament with the deepest squad to boot, they have always been at their most vulnerable at the quarter-final stage and the prospect of a last-eight meeting with France in Cardiff would evoke nightmares of 2007.

And dare I say should Ireland lose to the French, all is not necessarily lost for a Joe Schmidt inspired Ireland. Having already come so close to beating the world champions in November 2013 the sight of the silver fern will not be as awesome as it once was Joe’s Jolly Green Giants.

But the real key to Ireland’s World Cup efforts is fitness and steering clear of serious injuries. Schmidt has used 62 players over the course of 22 matches in charge, but there is a group of individuals whose importance to the cause is paramount.

Chief among them are half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, while the possible loss of inside centre Robbie Henshaw would also be hard to take. Rob Kearney’s calm assurance at full-back would also be a major miss, while up front Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip look nigh on irreplaceable if Ireland are to fulfil their potential. But the good news is that Robbie Henshaw will make his World Cup bow against Italy while Rob Kearney will not be rushed back into action ahead of the French test at least.

An Open World Cup

This has been described by a number of contenders as the most open World Cup in history with as many as six potential winners, but few have as shallow a squad as Ireland do.

Injury-ravaged Wales have already been further hit with more hammer blows that will sorely test their resources but not their resolve as they have proved against England in their dramatic Twickenham victory. Fingers crossed that Ireland continue to get off lightly but the heavy lifting is still to come with inevitable consequences.

Keeping the front-liners fit is one thing, picking on form is another and Schmidt must live up to his ruthless reputation if his side are to deliver on their potential in this tournament. But he has so far wisely managed his playing squad and team spirit must be where or close to where he wants it to be.

This may be all new to the clever Kiwi but he must adapt to his surrounds. And the choice of Ireland’s team bases off the beaten track in Cardiff, Burton-on-Trent, Guildford in Surrey and Newport in Wales should help keep the players happy during an intensive regime and will be another important element.

If Ireland are to achieve their goal and make it to at least the last four, then they will be in England and Wales for the duration and will be on tour for more than seven weeks given there’s a third/fourth place play-off if they come off second best in the semi-final.
Although injuries could take their toll and the need to perform for five successive weeks will be tough on the Ireland squad, but Joe Schmidt has an incredible record in knock-out rugby and has a history of delivering when it matters most.

But then he ideal route includes beating France and beating the impressive Pumas in the quarter-final, setting up a semi-final at Twickenham against England, Australia or Wales.

On the other side of the draw, the southern hemisphere big two are scheduled to meet in the final four, although the Springboks or Scotland will face a tough task against the second-placed side in Pool A assuming they come out on top of their Pool.
Having lost just four games since their narrow victory at Eden Park four years ago, the All Blacks are undoubtedly the class act in the field, but they have never won a World Cup outside of New Zealand despite being the undisputed favourites at every competition.

It is theirs to lose, but they’ve managed to mess up in different ways before. If they do, then the question is who will be ready to seize that opportunity.

But the real question is can Ireland really prosper from their new-found self-belief. They are currently in a great place and have never been better prepared. Well-coached, disciplined and completely in tune with each other, they have the team to compete with anyone when they bring their best game to the table.

But until they deliver on their potential and reach the last four at least, there will always be a lingering doubt participating in World Cups. There’s surely never been a better time for the Ireland rugby to make the right kind of World Cup history.