After their shock defeat to World Cup hosts Japan many will believe that the Irish are the proverbial duck dead in the water.
With a likely match up against reigning champions New Zealand, pundits give the men in green little chance of progressing past the World Cup quarter-finals, a feat they are yet to achieve in the tournament’s 22-year history.
Alas, is this a foregone conclusion?
Joe Schmidt’s men looked tired and devoid of attacking flair without their chief playmaker Jonny Sexton in their ranks. Regular stalwarts such as Connor Murray and CJ Stander also failed to perform. Even talismanic flyer Jacob Stockdale could do little to curb a relentless Japanese attack buoyed by a partisan crowd at the Shizuoka Stadium.
The loss was followed by an underwhelming bonus point victory against Russia in which the men in green laboured to a 35-0 win that won’t leave Rassie Erasmus or Steve Hansen fearing a potential last eight showdown.
A bonus-point victory over Samoa would guarantee Ireland a space in the quarter-finals – with the true fate of Pool A lying firmly in the hands of the hosts. Japan could top the group with a win in their remaining fixture against Scotland.
Let’s presume that this is the case – Ireland come runners up in the group and face the All Blacks on the 19th of October.
The pressure on New Zealand going into this fixture would be immense.
They will go into the game with the favorite tag firmly stapled on. It’s a tag they’ve taken in their stride for so long – until recently at least. With losses in 2019 to Rugby Championship rivals South Africa and Australia still fresh in the memory, the aura of invincibility that has followed the men in black around on the international stage is in tatters.
If we delve into the archives of the Webb Ellis cup we can see that group stage form isn’t the ultimate barometer of a team’s chances of success later on in the tournament.
Continue reading below…
In 2007 England were humbled 0-36 by the Springboks in what was billed to be the group A decider.
With two games left to go in the pool stage many feared that their World Cup defence would not outlive the preliminary rounds. Yet, five weeks later a galvanised England side made the final, only to lose narrowly again to the same opposition that had trounced them three games previously.
The same French side went on to make the knockout stages brushing aside England and Wales before agonisingly missing out on the top prize by a single point to the All Blacks at Eden Park.
What do these two teams share with the 2019 Ireland side? The answer lies in one pivotal area: experience.
In 2007 England looked to a nucleus of former World Cup-winning men such as Lawrence Dallagio, Josh Lewsey and Jonny Wilkinson to lead their William Web Ellis revival.
The French rallied around the likes of Dimitri Yachvili, Vincent Clerc and Thierry Dusatoir to turn around their tournament.
These players were the bedrock upon which their sides World Cup assault was launched and that experience and tactical nous was what steadied the ship in their tumultuous campaigns.
Both of these sides were forced to adopt a siege mentality against the damning press pieces and fan backlash to come together and truly unite towards a common goal: escaping an embarrassing World Cup exit.
Ireland now find themselves in that same pressure cooker in which England and France once dwelled.
Can they adopt the same siege mentality that has proved so successful in tournaments gone by? I believe the answer to that question is yes and if that is the case then we are looking at a formidable Irish side going into the knockout stages.
Despite Ireland’s loss to Japan, there is certainly that a similar bedrock of players on which to build upon: Rory Best 37, Jonathan Sexton 35, Rob Kearney 33, Cian Healy 31, Keith Earls 32, Peter O’Mahony 30, Connor Murray 30.
These men have won Heineken Cup Finals, a British and Irish Lions Series and Grand Slams but perhaps, more importantly, they have come through adversity.
Look back to 2013 when the Lions had to overcome a 2nd Test loss to the Wallabies to eventually win in the series decider at the ANZ stadium.
In 2014 these players made up the spine of a side that won the Six Nations with a title decider at the Stade de France despite losing to England in the 3rd round.
A year later they retained the trophy after losing a thriller in Cardiff. Perhaps the most telling statistic that can be attributed to all seven of these Irish starters is that they have all played on winning sides against the All Blacks. Not something that can be said for many north of the equator.
If Ireland are to take the field on the 2nd of November to fight it out for World Cup glory then they will surely need a return to form for their half-back pairing of Murray and Sexton.
Under their stewardship they have defeated the All Blacks once with Ireland and once with the Lions. (Kieran Marmion playing 9 in Ireland’s victory over New Zealand in 2018). If the pair tick, Ireland will tick and that could be the catalyst on which an Irish tournament victory could be achieved.
No side has ever lost a game in the pool stages and gone on to win the Webb Ellis trophy. Some have come close. England in 91 and 07 along with France in 2011. Joe Schmidt will believe his side can emulate this feat and go on to make their first RWC semi-final in history and perhaps beyond.
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