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FEATURE Ireland head to France buoyed by expectation and a sense of destiny

Ireland head to France buoyed by expectation and a sense of destiny
9 months ago

It didn’t feel like a squad that Andy Farrell announced yesterday, more like a first draft of history. For if expectations are going to be lived up to, this 2023 World Cup will be remembered in Ireland forever, and so by extension will the names of those who played in it.

Ireland is a country addicted to sporting nostalgia, filmmakers and newspapers forever dipping into the archives to commemorate anniversaries of past achievements, the 30th anniversary of Italia 90 generating not one but two sporting documentaries to mark the occasion.

For context, Jack Charlton’s football team reached a quarter-final, the same ceiling Andy Farrell’s side are seeking to smash. They can. Even if history is against them, even if injuries have denied them the presence of Cian Healy, the veteran prop who can cover all three front-row positions, there is every reason why Ireland should travel to France with expectation rather than hope.

“I have been in groups before where you go to a World Cup and you say ‘We are here to win it’ but you don’t often have the achievements to back it up,” said their talismanic captain, Johnny Sexton, yesterday.

This team’s CV is different, with a series win in New Zealand backed up by a grand slam in the spring, victories over the Springboks and Wallabies the meat in that tasty sandwich.

“We have evidence which gives us a bit of confidence,” said Sexton, “but we also know that it is the toughest group we have ever had, the toughest quarter-final draw if we manage to get through the group. So it is all to do.”

Cian Healy
The loss of the popular Cian Healy, on the eve of the squad announcement was a blow (Photo by ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/Getty Images)
It is. The presence of the world champion Springboks and much improved Scotland in Ireland’s pool really does make a mockery of the draw. The fact that those lucky enough to escape it will then face either France or New Zealand is also a reminder of life’s unfairness. One half of the draw isn’t just easier. It’s a mix of has-beens and never-weres.
In this regard, the 33 who made the cut for Ireland yesterday have every right to feel the hard work isn’t over but in fact is only about to begin. Never before have Ireland carried such high expectations into a World Cup. Never before have there been so many close calls for a place on the plane.

The pack alone contains Jeremy Loughman, Tom O’Toole and Joe McCarthy, who often are second choice with their provinces. Yet they are included by Farrell for a reason, Loughman because of Healy’s injury primarily, but also because he, along with O’Toole and McCarthy, left a deep impression on Farrell on last year’s tour to New Zealand.

Farrell’s mission in New Zealand, he repeatedly said, wasn’t just to get results but also to find characters, hoping to see if five uncut gems could be unearthed.

That was a tour filled with challenges, a five-match itinerary packed into three weeks, injuries mounting right through it. “That’s life, isn’t it,” Farrell constantly said. “I want to see what we are made of, how we react to challenges.”

His mission, he repeatedly said, wasn’t just to get results but also to find characters, hoping to see if five uncut gems could be unearthed. It’s interesting that O’Toole, McCarthy, Loughman, Craig Casey and Jimmy O’Brien are in this squad now, because they were his dirt trackers, lining out against the New Zealand Maoris on filthy nights in Wellington and Hamilton, when the stands were empty and the rain beat down.

Yet they never complained.

And this is their reward.

Craig Casey
Ireland’s success will depend on its squad harmony and players like Craig Casey who impressed on the New Zealand tour in 2022 (Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/Getty Images)

So even if Ulster often prefer Marty Moore to O’Toole, if Loughman, Casey and McCarthy have spent meaningful time on provincial benches rather than starting XVs, their presence in the squad is not going to lead to demonstrations.

We’re talking about the battle to be third choice, the right to be back-up to the back-up. With the exception of Jacob Stockdale and Joey Carbery, whose omissions stem from loss of form, there aren’t any cause célèbres.

The 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina exposed a lack of depth and led to a complete reevaluation of how Irish teams were going to prepare from thereon in. Regarded as a conservative selector, Joe Schmidt – Farrell’s predecessor – proved, in the last four years of his tenure, to be a risk-taker.

Still, it was an interesting selection.

Keith Earls’ inclusion ahead of Stockdale serves as a reminder that Earls is one of those dutiful players in whom Farrell trusts, and while he may not be as popular among supporters as Carbery, Ross Byrne has delivered on big days for Ireland and Leinster.
It is worth remembering that Ireland went to the 2015 World Cup with just 14 backs and just five props. This squad has 15 of the former, six of the latter. They also have options.
The 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina exposed a lack of depth and led to a complete reevaluation of how Irish teams were going to prepare from thereon in. Regarded as a conservative selector, Joe Schmidt – Farrell’s predecessor – proved, in the last four years of his tenure, to be a risk-taker.
Bundee Aki
Andy Farrell has proved a more relaxed man manager than Joe Schmidt, while retaining his tactical acumen (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)
He gave Carbery his debut against the All Blacks just days after his 21st birthday; he introduced Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey to Test rugby for a Six Nations match at Twickenham; he promoted Tadhg Furlong before anyone bar Tadhg Furlong’s mother and father knew who he was; he used summer tours to try out new players.

And the seeds of that investment are visible now. Sixteen of Farrell’s squad earned their first caps under Schmidt and yet this is not Joe’s team. Rather it is a upgraded model of what he produced, Farrell retaining much of the ruck-obsessed detail which defined the Schmidt sides, while proving to be a more relaxed man-manager.

The Englishman has never been shy to promote players who aren’t first choice with their provinces – Jamison Gibson-Park being the most obvious example of that, but also Byrne, O’Toole, Loughman, Casey.

Significantly he also advanced Dan Sheehan’s case before the world knew what Sheehan could do. Now look at him, the world’s best hooker, arguably Ireland’s best player.

An injury to Furlong wouldn’t result in Farrell turning to a journeyman like Nathan White, Mike Ross’s back-up in 2015. O’Toole and Finlay Bealham have proved their worth in the last 12 months.
For a time in the last month, as he battled injury and the rest of us neurotically wondered if he would recover in time for France, there was more talk about Sheehan’s left foot than Christy Brown’s. Yet even if he hadn’t made it, Farrell could call on Ronan Kelleher, Rob Herring or Tom Stewart.
That’s where Irish rugby is now. In 11 of the 15 positions, he does not just have a credible Plan B but also a more than adequate Plan C. If Johnny Sexton is missing there is always Jack Crowley and if not him then Byrne. No Bundee Aki? No problem — Rob Henshaw can cover 12 or 13, while McCloskey is a brilliant third-choice to call on.
An injury to Furlong wouldn’t result in Farrell turning to a journeyman like Nathan White, Mike Ross’s back-up in 2015. O’Toole and Finlay Bealham have proved their worth in the last 12 months. And that is before their depth of back-row talent is mentioned, O’Mahony, van der Flier and Doris, backed up by Ryan Baird, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan.
Tadhg Furlong
An injury to a talisman like Tadhg Furlong wouldn’t be the disaster it has been in the past because Ireland now have enviable depth (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
So Ireland expects even though they should be reminded that reaching World Cup finals is not an easy thing to do — only five countries have managed it in the history of the sport — but as Schmidt discovered eight years ago, when players such as White and Mike McCarthy fill out his squad, success won’t happen with journeymen. This Irish squad is better than that, deeper in quality than any in the country’s history.

They dream of something big. And it can happen. The only trouble is the Springboks, All Blacks and French share the same dream. Two of this quartet will be home by the quarter-finals. Will that be Ireland once again? Not this time.

Ireland squad: Forwards Ryan Baird, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony, Tom O’Toole, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Sheehan, Josh van der Flier. Backs Bundee Aki, Ross Byrne, Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Keith Earls, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Stuart McCloskey, Conor Murray, Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt).

Comments

11 Comments
B
Brian 296 days ago

Ireland have the firepower to win this RWC. question is, can they beat the Boks, France or ABs, one after the other, week after week, without sustaining injuries or these other teams decoding their tactics and figuring out how to get one over them? If they pass the QFs it’s their tournament to lose. The only team I reckon may give Ireland trouble is SA, that pool match will be telling how either team will make out in the QFs.

J
Jon 297 days ago

Weird article for the outsider, “success won’t happen with journeymen” yet a key part of the article is about selecting 5 journeyman that fill out the squad without trouble?

Some how they are different to previous journeymen?

C
Chris 299 days ago

They peaked one year too early I reckon.

K
KiwiSteve 300 days ago

No chance but God loves a trier. The only question ❓ would be if they won because France, SA, NZ choked would the victory parade be in Dublin or Sydney?

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