Date: Fri 20th Sep
Ireland Rugby World Cup preview: England have opened major cracks twice this year… but if Joe Schmidt has the Johnny Sexton-Conor Murray partnership firing they still have a chance of glory in Japan
- Ireland are in Pool A alongside, Scotland, hosts Japan, Samoa and Russia
- Joe Schmidt’s side won Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018 before beating All Blacks
- But they have suffered a dip this year after two crushing defeats by England
- Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray remain best half-back pairing in the world
Joe Schmidt guided Ireland to some dizzying heights in 2018. A year that began with a stunning Six Nations Grand Slam thanks to that last-gasp drop goal from Johnny Sexton in Paris which proved the catalyst for a clean sweep, culminating in a 24-15 triumph over England in their own backyard at Twickenham.
Leinster – bulk suppliers to the national cause – would finish the season as Pro14 and European champions for good measure. The good times carried on into the summer as Schmidt took his squad Down Under for a three-Test series against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies. Ireland would win a hard-fought series 2-1, a first series victory on Australian soil since 1979.
The hype was beginning to build around this Ireland squad. That excitement become full-blown hysteria the following November when the All Blacks were vanquished in Dublin. This squad were being heralded as World Cup contenders. They had the coach, the players and the confidence to achieve great things in Japan.
POOL A FIXTURES
Scotland, September 22, 8.45am
Japan, September 28, 8.15am
Russia, October 3, 11.15am
Samoa, October 12, 11.45am
Ireland’s record across the 32-history of the global showpiece is grim reading. Never has an Ireland side progressed past the quarter-final stage and on two occasions – in 1999 and 2007 – they failed to even progress that far.
But this Ireland squad looked a completely different proposition and were primed to break that glass ceiling and reach a first-ever World Cup semi-final, and possibly more.
Fast forward six months and the landscape now looks very, very different.
Ireland have been seemingly in free-fall since the events of February 2 at the Aviva Stadium. It was the opening weekend of the Six Nations and Eddie Jones had brought an England squad across the water on a revenge mission. Owen Farrell and Co were forced to stand and watch as Rory Best and his victorious squad paraded around Twickenham as Grand Slam champions the previous season.
Bolstered by the return of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi, they arrived in Dublin ready to make a big statement. The visitors scored within 90 seconds through Jonny May’s slick try and Ireland never recovered. It would finish 32-20 in England’s favour leaving Schmidt’s squad shell-shocked. Ireland were blown away by England’s physicality on the night.
The conductor-in-chief of this Ireland squad. Sexton is the fulcrum of the Irish attack. They desperately need the veteran Leinster No 10 fit and firing in Japan.
A few weeks later, Schmidt would concede that the whole experience left his squad ‘a bit broken’. His players would stutter past Scotland and Italy before a callow French outift waved the white flag at the Aviva. Then followed another worrying loss to Wales on the final day of the championship. Warren Gatland’s side storming to 25-7 victory to seal the Grand Slam.
Soon, the inquest began into Ireland’s failings. How could they fall away at such an alarming rate? The belief at the time was that Schmidt was keeping his cards close to his chest with the World Cup looming large on the horizon. Having seen his squad fail at the 2015 World Cup when a mounting injury list contributed to a quarter-final collapse against Argentina, the New Zealander has made it his life’s work to ensure that Ireland were virtually bullet-proof for the 2019 edition. If the Six Nations was worrying than the recent 57-15 drubbing at the hands of England last month was positively panic-inducing.
Schmidt was expecting a degree of rustiness from his squad following an eight-day warm weather training camp Portugal, but even he would have been alarmed by the sheer ineptitude of his team. That eight-try trouncing was all the more concerning given that 10 of the players in the starting line-up had featured in the win against the All Blacks the previous November.
All of a sudden, Schmidt is faced with selection dilemmas and concerns over frontline players who looked nailed-on to spearhead Ireland’s challenge in Japan. There is increasing pressure on Rory Best and whether Ireland’s 37-year-old captain has the legs to withstand a punishing World Cup campaign. The likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray have struggled for form and this squad has been hit hard by injuries to key players.
The greatest coach to ever set foot on Irish soil. The New Zealand oversaw an unprecedented era of success at Leinster before taking the Ireland job in 2013. Has guided Ireland to three Six Nations titles (including a Grand Slam), two wins over the All Blacks, a maiden win over the Springboks on South African soil and a 2-1 series victory in Australia.
Dan Leavy definitely won’t be making the flight to Tokyo. The Leinster openside will be out of action for at least a year after suffering a serious knee injury against Ulster back in April. Very much in the mould of David Pocock, Leavy has left a massive void in the Irish backrow.
So, is there any hope for Ireland in Japan? Despite a harrowing seven months, injury issues and concerns over key players, this squad has the coaching team and the talent to make an impact in the Far East.
In Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan, Ireland can still field a pack laced with talent. If Murray and Sexton can stay injury-free and find their best form then this team are suddenly a very different proposition. Arguably the best half-back pairing on the planet when they are on top form, Murray and Sexton can get the best out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and the prolific Jacob Stockdale.
Overseeing the whole operation is Schmidt – who will leave his post as Ireland head coach after six-and-a-half trophy-laden years in charge. The Kiwi has masterminded many great days in Irish rugby; it would to hard to believe that Schmidt does not have a Masterplan for Japan.
If not, Ireland are facing more World Cup misery in the coming months.