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Sean O'Brien fears Ireland walking down same old World Cup blind alley

By Ian Cameron
Getty Images

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Former Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien has expressed fears that Ireland are once again headed towards Rugby World Cup ‘trouble’ if they don’t make changes over the next 18 months.

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Ireland have an infamously poor record at Rugby World Cups. Despite rankings that would suggest otherwise, they have never progressed further than a quarter-final and have twice not made it out of the pool stages of the flagship tournament.

One continuing criticism has been that Ireland have peaked in the middle of World Cup cycles, only to arrive at the tournament stale.

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Ireland’s Grand Slam dreams and nine-match winning streak were halted by the French, but there remains a sense that this Ireland side are once again riding high. A victory over the All Blacks in the Autumn and the attractive brand of attacking rugby they’re playing indicate that Ireland are starting to peak.

Despite this success, or maybe because of it, fears are being voiced that the men in green have once again got their timing wrong.

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland of 2018 looked similarly convincing a year out from Japan. Few Test teams that year had an answer for the New Zealander’s box-kick and contest strategy that saw them pick up a Grand Slam in the spring and a rare victory over Steve Hansen’s All Blacks as part of an Autumn clean sweep.

Yet by the time they made it to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, teams had worked Ireland out and Schmidt’s men seemed tired, lacking direction and – crucially – a plan B.

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O’Brien, a veteran of two World Cups believes, speaking with the Daily Mail, Andy Farrell’s men could be once again driving down the same World Cup cul-de-sac.

“Ireland are playing a better brand of rugby than they’ve ever played. It’s a Leinster-style of rugby, but with an offloading game. They have options everywhere,” O’Brien said.

“Hopefully by the time the next World Cup comes around they’ll be in a really good place because that’s the stumbling block Ireland have come across in the last few years. I think that’s the trick.

“If Ireland were to stay as they are now right up until the next World Cup, they’ll probably be in trouble again. It’s about coming to a World Cup with something teams haven’t seen before.

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“At previous World Cups, teams had us figured out when we got there and we didn’t have other options.”

O’Brien isn’t alone in voicing his concerns, with former Scotland and Leinster coach Matt Williams making a similar point recently, although his chief concern was with Farrell’s conservative selection policy.

“… nobody is thinking of giving game time to key backup players, because, heaven forbid, Ireland might lose a match. No-one is at all interested in preparing for the next World Cup,” wrote Williams in The Irish Times.

“That is if you don’t include France, who have been planning for the 2023 World Cup for more than seven years. Fabien Galthié took his second and third choice team to Australia last summer to give them big match experience. New Zealand always plan ahead. Look at their depth chart at 3, 10 and 15. The Boks and the Wallabies are fixated on the World Cup cycle, as are Eddie Jones and England, but apart from them, no-one is really planning for France 2023 . . . are they?”

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