Friday, September 18, 2015

The Era Count is Rising

By Ciarán Duffy

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Best chance to win a World Cup 2: And this time... it’s Personal

The World Cup has finally arrived.  It’s about time as well, we’ve been building up to this since at least the last set of Autumn internationals.  Personally I’ve been building up to this since the 2011 World Cup ended.  After winning the Six Nations for two consecutive years either side of two terrific victories over Australia and South Africa, there really is a sense of ‘new era’ about this Ireland team.  But this new era comes with aura of familiarity. 

Going back to 2010, Ireland looked like they’d turned a corner at last.  Having won the grandslam the previous year, and having put on a great showing in the Autumn series, expectations were appropriately high.  No longer the admirable runner-ups or the respectable third place team, but the champions, the undefeated champions.  There for all the underdogs to shoot at.  Seemingly unstoppable.

Stopped.  Two games in, a dark blue realisation hit home.  Once again, beaten and well beaten against France.  The aura of invincibility gone and it was back to finishing 2nd.  Despite getting a victory in Twickenham that year a last day loss to Scotland, in what would be Irelands’ final international game before moving to the Aviva Stadium, assured a not so close runners-up spot. 

If we go back further to 2007, the year that would be hailed as ‘Ireland’s best ever chance to win a world cup’ (not to be confused with any other time that has been said), it was a similar experience.  Going in, Ireland were the favourites, not just for the title, but for the grandslam.  Having beaten both South Africa and Australia, with both England and France at home, the stars seemed to align.  And just like 2010, it ended with France.  Although the competition went to the last game, and it took a last minute Vermeulen try to secure it for France.  It was still a runner-up spot for a team that could be champions.

If the Six Nations was a disappointment, there is no word to describe the world cup.  After a lacklustre display against Namibia, and a terrifying encounter with the Georgians, the hopes of a win were replaced with a realisation that for the first time Ireland would crash out of the world cup in the pool stage.  Two annihilations at the hands of France and Argentina later and that was that. 

In the past, when the expectations rise, the performance seems to fall.  When the last world cup rolled around, the optimism wasn’t quite as high.  Until the victory over Australia, all of a sudden it was Irelands’ to win.  A winnable semi-final against either England or France would follow a formality of a Quarter Final game against Wales.  Once again, it did not go to plan.  Out thought, outplayed, outcoached, and out foxed by Wales, and most importantly, out of the World Cup. 

Can Ireland handle the pressure?  The mental block around the Six Nations has been removed, Wales still trip us up now and then, and Joe is yet to beat England at Twickenham, but we’ve beaten everyone at least once in the last two tournaments and finished top both times.  Now it’s time to step it up a notch.  Four years is a long-time in a rugby players career and so there is a sense of ‘one-shot’ surrounding a favourable draw like the one we have now.  But is it really going to happen this time?  Is this ‘Irelands best chance to win a world cup 2 (Ireland’s best chance to win a World Cup Harder)’, or are we all just getting caught up in the moment. Is there anything backing up the notion of Ireland being world-beaters now. 

Yes, there really is, this time it is different.  That sounds like famous last words, but there are several key things that set this World Cup apart.  One is that we go into this tournament as champions of Europe, for the first time in a World Cup year.  And yet, there is still a sense of caution.  That is because we’ve been here before.  2007 is still fresh in the memory of all Irish supporters.  And with two poor performances in the last two games, few are getting carried away.  This time it’s not as ‘all or nothing’, the expectation is a semi-final, which is both realistic and challenging.  Having had the bad experiences in the past (and having them constantly brought up), there is a lot of experience to draw from this time around.  There is also, a New Zealander with 3 European trophies and two six nations to factor in. 

Where the Kidney and O’Sullivan eras failed, the Schmidt era may succeed.  In addition to the heart and desire of an Irish team we have all known, loved and been frustrated by, Schmidt brings a game plan.  There has been a decreasing reliance on ‘miracle plays’ to win games under Joe.  It has been replaced with a genuine capability of winning a tough game.  Look back to the deciding games of the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations, in the deciding game of the 2014 six nations, there was no last minute “drop at goal, grandslam at stake” moment.  There was however, a defensive display that merged gutsy heroics with confident composure that allowed Ireland to beat France.  The former may be exciting the odd time it pays off, but the later leads to more long-term success.  That attitude goes for the players as well.  In the game against Scotland this year, we saw a performances full off determination and heart, as seen by Heaslips tackle on Stuart Hogg, but also level-headedness, as encapsulated by everything Paul O’Connell did throughout the game.  Both are necessary to win a World Cup.

Schmidt gives Ireland what they have been missing for so long.  Rather than hinging the performance on a 50:50 bounce of the ball, Joe can implement a game plan that lets Ireland decide when and how high it bounces in the first place.  And then at the end of it all when it works, if it’s a one-point win or a sixty-one point win, it’s back down to earth and acknowledging that there are improvements to be made.  Add to this the strength in depth of the current Irish roster.  In 2007, Ireland had a terrific starting line-up, but there was a gulf in quality between the starting 15 and the rest of the squad.  Now there is competition in some key areas, which will raise everyone’s game throughout the tournament.  It is true there are some issues, lingering questions remain over the centre partnership, although Payne and Henshaw worked well in the Six Nations, and there is clearly an over reliance on Sexton, which is understandable considering his quality, in addition to the risk of only bringing two scrum-halves.  However, positives such as Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy stepping up during the Six Nations and Dave Kearney playing his way into the team during the warm-ups should also be considered.  In terms of lineouts, Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell have proved a successful combination with Iain Henderson proven to be a key impact player.  O’Brien, Heaslip and O’Mahony offer up both leadership and ball carrying options in the back row.  On top of this, having arguably the best coach in the world, and as I type that I question my use of the word ‘arguably’, makes Ireland serious contenders.  This may be the year that we forget the notion of simply ‘Irelands year’, and move on to calling it Ireland’s sport. 

It needs to happen from the start this time.  It would not be surprising if Ireland didn’t set the world a light against Canada and Romania, because it is not necessary to show their hand.  But every World Cup, teams like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and often England put up big scores against the weak nations.  The 15 set to play against Canada on Saturday are capable of putting 65/70 points on the scoreboard, and the Romanian game should bring with it a solid display and a bonus point.  Italy have suffered with injuries already and despite proving to be sticky opposition on occasion, this needs to be another five points.  Entering into the last game with 15 points on the board and a heap of tries will make for good reading.  And regardless of which France shows up, Ireland can beat them with the standard of performance we saw against South Africa, Australia, and even New Zealand.  Ireland may have had no luck in the past against them in World Cups, but this is not the past.  Going in to the quarterfinals as pool winners is not important just because it will probably mean avoiding the All Blacks until later.  It is important, because it brings with it momentum, and with three big games taking place within three weeks, momentum is key.  Ireland beating anyone should not be an upset in this tournament, Ireland are just too good to be underdogs anymore.  They have nothing to fear, including the tag as one of the favourites that they have earned over the last few years. 

We’ve been here before, now there’s the chance to go further.  There is a now or never buzz around this tournament.  Ireland are the European champions, which comes with responsibility and expectations.  Will it be a failure if Ireland don’t win the world cup? Of course not.  Will it be a failure if Ireland don’t at least reach the semi-finals of the world cup?  In this new era of standards, one would have to think so. 

Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.

Ciarán will be penning “8-0-reviews” for us during RWC2015 covering Pool B

Click here for his preview

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