There’s a lot of gloom and despondency around the Irish rugby team at the moment. Curious stuff for a team presently ranked number one in the world. Forget for a moment the pure idiocy of the world ranking system, it’s strange to see so much disaffection among followers of the side that’s top of the rugby tree.
This writer-for his sins-has followed the ups and downs of Irish rugby for the best part of three decades. However, despite six years of unprecedented success under Maestro Schmidt, I can’t recall feeling so underwhelmed coming into a World Cup campaign. It’s weird, isn’t it? Three Six Nations titles, encompassing a Grand Slam, and not one, but two, yes two, wins over the ABs should infuse a greater sense of optimism.
Maybe we’re just bloody greedy! After all, we never had it so good. Right? Well, expectations are measured by a fairly flat Six Nations performance that featured two poor losses against England and Grand Slam winners, Wales. While the heroics of last November were always hard to repeat, the sheer scale of those defeats shocked. Those reverses were, well, very un-Ireland, if you excuse the clumsy expression.
Granted, it’s hard at the top of the tree waiting to be knocked down, but fans struggled to understand Ireland’s swift fall from grace. Throw in the complete hammering inflicted by England during the World Cup warm-ups and we see a picture of confidence dented and wind furiously taken from Ireland’s once high-flying sails. Heroes to zeros and all that.
And yet, the nucleus of an extremely good rugby side remains intact. Think about it. Ireland possess mammoth experience in virtually every position and a wealth of talent is at the squad’s disposal. Irish rugby has never had such strength in depth across the board.
Furthermore, in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, Schmidt has the best half-backs in the tournament. Ireland’s halves are all-time greats whose World Cup stories thus far are of frustrating underachievement. If they stay off the physio table this time, 2019 is the chance to shine.
And in Schmidt, Ireland have one of the greatest coaches: smart, innovative and ambitious. After the anti-climax of 2015, Ireland’s best ever strategist is determined to end on a high. One more roll of the dice for Schmidt and off into the rugby sunset he goes. We want a happy ending for coach and captain of course, but seldom does the rugby gods dispense justice.
We start the campaign with a massive game against Scotland. A good side that knows Ireland like the back of its hand, this is far from the gimme many have supposed. With rain forecast, expect relentless targeting of the Irish line-out and breakdown; with a full blown aerial assault thrown in. Injuries, especially in the back three, have hampered preparation, but Ireland have the experience and nous to negotiate the ambush.
Withstand the Scottish onslaught and Ireland have a relatively straightforward group before another quarter-final; likely against the behemoths of South Africa. This will be the cup final of all cup finals. Ireland’s profile is low but they fancy their chances. Make no mistake about that. Win that almighty tussle and all bets are off. Heck, even the All Blacks don’t frighten anymore!
But there’s much work to be done before that. Toil, sweat and homework in the land of the rising sun. However, Schmidt’s Ireland are up for the fight. Indeed, it will be the last chance for a lot of them; esteemed coach included. See, it’s not so bad actually. Forget the doom and gloom. Ireland will do fine. Schmidt’s boys are primed for their best ever World Cup finish.