False hope has been Irish rugby’s curse this century. It was first seen in 2002, when the then world champion Wallabies were downed in Lansdowne Road, before reappearing in 2004, ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07. By then Ireland were England’s superiors, even though the latter had won the World Cup in 2003.
With giddy talk of homecoming parades and national holidays if and when Ireland won the 2007 tournament, the nation quickly learned how hype can turn to embarrassment in the blink of an eye.
Ireland, remember, didn’t even make it out of the pool in 2007; they’ve never made it beyond the quarter-finals in any World Cup, yet here they are, nine months shy of the tenth staging of rugby’s biggest show, being talked up as potential winners.
Will 2023 be any different? November saw them defeat the reigning champion Springboks in a bruising encounter at the Aviva, reminding you of the Novembers of 2002, 2009 and 2018 when they also got one over the Webb Ellis Cup holders, before flopping in the big show. So, if history has taught us anything, it is the need to be cautious… but where’s the fun in that?
So Farr, so good
When Andy Farrell replaced Joe Schmidt as Ireland’s head coach in 2019, the David Moyes/Alex Ferguson analogy was regularly made. It shouldn’t have been; Ferguson had been at Old Trafford for over a quarter of a century, Schmidt in charge of Ireland for just six years.
That wasn’t the only reason why Schmidt was no Ferguson but more significantly, Farrell is no Moyes. After initial teething troubles, he has significantly altered his starting XV, dropping Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale to the bench, turning Ronan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen and Hugo Keenan into household names.
Other selection tweaks have proved equally inspired, Andrew Porter (scorer of two tries in Ireland’s second Test win over New Zealand last summer) switching back to loosehead; Caelan Doris alternating between numbers six and eight; Josh van der Flier dropped and then told what he had to do to win back his place. Van der Flier was World Rugby’s player of the year in 2022.
The impact has been stunning. A record win in Twickenham preceded a Test series win in New Zealand followed by November victories over South Africa and Australia.
Even the two times they have lost in their last 19 matches, they fought back in the second half, indicative of a never-say-die mentality and a coach who has the ability to make quick in-game fixes.
It’s safe to assume then that Ireland will be competitive in France. But can they make history and win the thing? Well, that’s an entirely different question. The first thing they need is a fit captain.
Rugby’s Benjamin Button
There’s this great quote that the American sportswriter, Mark Kram, elicited from Joe Frazier as he reflected, decades later, about the Thrilla in Manila. Recalling the traumatic effect Muhammad Ali’s punches had on his battered body in that world heavyweight title fight, Frazier lamented how they went out there as kings but came back as old men.
That’s sport. No athlete has ever beat time and whatever the chances are of Johnny Sexton staying injury free, one thing he can’t remain is young! He will be 38 when the tournament begins in France and you can’t help thinking back to how well Devin Toner, Rob Kearney and Rory Best played in November 2018 when Ireland beat the All Blacks and how old they looked in 2019.
The sporting history books are filled with stories of great athletes going past their best without warning. Sexton has recently said how he is driven by his omission from the 2021 Lions tour and how ‘it still drives me to this day’.
Staying motivated is admirable but staying young is impossible. If his legs go in France, Ireland have a problem, as the drop-off to the alternatives – Joey Carbery, Jack Crowley – is considerable.
The need for silverware
This team needs to win a Six Nations. And they certainly should. Across the last half century, Ireland have recorded just one away double over France and England, but this year’s scheduling is favourable, with those rivals due to visit Dublin.
An away opener in Cardiff looks considerably trickier now that Warren Gatland is back in Wales but if you possess a good enough team to win twice in New Zealand then you should have the requisite tools to get the job done against a side incapable of beating Italy and Georgia.
A first grand slam in five years is on the cards and the hunger is there as the majority of this team – Keenan, James Lowe, Hansen, Gibson-Park, Doris, Tadhg Beirne, Sheehan – played no part in the 2018 grand slam while Porter, van der Flier and Jack Conan had limited game-time in that campaign.
Like England in 2003, like Wales in 2019, a championship is only seen as a stepping stone; both Sir Clive Woodward and Gatland aware of the psychological benefits they could draw on by pointing to a trophy in the cabinet prior to those World Cups. If Ireland are to break the habit of a lifetime and reach a semi-final, what happens in spring is almost as important as events in autumn.
Good and all as Ireland have been in 2022, it is hard not to draw comparisons with Wales and 2019, in that they’ve a brilliant team but not necessarily a brilliant squad. To win a World Cup, Ireland are going to have to produce three huge wins in successive weeks while dealing with injuries. Have they the depth to cope?
One player to look out for if Ringrose gets injured is Antoine Frisch, the Munster centre, who has made a big impact this season on both sides of the ball. Otherwise, all Ireland’s potential bolters have already bolted, Jimmy O’Brien having a brilliant November as an outside centre and then wing; Crowley showing well at out-half, Joe McCarthy making an impact in the second row.
Their squad is good; their team is great and to win a World Cup you need one of two things, luck or depth. Let’s do them a favour and not add to the hype.