x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ireland could have been contenders

If Ireland were judged solely on their performance in the Six Nations championship against England earlier this year, then having them in the "Hopefuls" section of our Rugby World Cup preview would clearly be way wide of the mark.

If Ireland were judged solely on their performance in the Six Nations championship against England earlier this year, then having them in the "Hopefuls" section of our Rugby World Cup preview would clearly be way wide of the mark.

On that form, they should have been among the contenders, at worst, if not in with the top-ranked group of favourites, along with Australia and New Zealand.

In fact, if Declan Kidney's side could turn a tap and run the type of form they showed in that victory in Dublin, which came against an England side that won the Six Nations title, they might as well collect the Webb Ellis Cup now.

So where has it all gone wrong?

Deeming them to be outsiders at the World Cup is fair, judging by their awful pre-tournament displays in suffering four consecutive defeats.

To all intents and purposes, those matches were little more than tune-ups, and Brian O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain, said his side bear no scars from those games ahead of the proper competition.

Mentally, perhaps not, but physically there were some major wounds inflicted.

The loss of David Wallace, in particular, to injury during the match against England may be one from that they cannot recover.

The openside flanker has typified the extremes of his country's contrasting fortunes this year.

He was Ireland's standout performer in that stunning Six Nations victory in March. Had he maintained that course, he would unquestionably have been one of the stars of the World Cup.

However, as the wheels started to creak on his side's final preparations, he was hit with a knockout blow, in the sizeable form of Manu Tuilagi, the bulldozing England centre.

The projected six-month recuperation required following his knee injury could cost Wallace, now aged 35, his career, not just his final chance to shine on the world stage.

Going by recent history - six defeats in their past eight matches - the outlook seems bleak enough.

Then factor in Ireland's overall World Cup record, and you start to wonder why they bothered making the flight to New Zealand at all.

Their history at rugby's flagship tournament is not becoming of one of rugby's leading nations.

They have not been past the quarter-final stage in the six World Cups to date.

Four years ago, they were woeful, stumbling out in the first round after pool defeats to France and Argentina. Their effort reached its nadir when they only just managed to avoid a defeat against unheralded Georgia.

On arrival in New Zealand, O'Driscoll said he was happy enough with the build-up, and Kidney refused to debate past failures, but at least Donncha O'Callaghan, the second-row forward, addressed the point.

He said Ireland did have a habit in the past for cowering under pressure in the biggest matches, but pointed to the 2009 Six Nations grand slam decider against Wales as a reason to be cheerful.

"Big games are the highlight of your career, or the most scarring event," O'Callaghan was quoted as saying last week.

"Before people thought Irish teams choke at big events, but beating Wales was the result that overturned that perception."

Being labelled chokers implies there were great expectations on them in the first place, as there were ahead of that one-off match in Cardiff in 2009.

Despite having largely the same pool of exceptional players now as they did back then, the expectations on them ahead of the World Cup have been tempered.

Perhaps that is all part of the plan.

 

pradley@thenational.ae