Noth­ing but the World Cup will do for Ire­land

O’Driscoll in­ter­view

Sport360 - - Front Page - By Matthew Jones mat­[email protected]

Op­ti­mism, be­lief and con­fi­dence are not feel­ings you im­me­di­ately pre­sume course through the veins of north­ern hemi­sphere teams ap­proach­ing a World Cup, but Ire­land great Brian O’Driscoll is adamant the Men in Green head into this year’s spec­ta­cle expecting vic­tory.

And in truth, why would they not head to Ja­pan with spir­its sky­high?

There is cer­tainly a swag­ger in their stride af­ter count­ing two wins over in­ter­na­tional rugby’s jug­ger­nauts New Zealand in the last two years among their re­sults – in ad­di­tion to three Six Na­tions ti­tles in the last five years, one of which yielded the Grand Slam.

They are in the midst of a record 12-game win­ning run at home – the 11th of which was that 16-9 tri­umph against the world cham­pion All Blacks dur­ing the au­tumn in­ter­na­tion­als at the tail end of 2018.

A lit­tle over a year ago, it was Eng­land – amid a charge un­der new coach Ed­die Jones – be­ing primed as the best-equipped north­ern hemi­sphere side to top­ple the dom­i­nance of the mighty All Blacks.

In March 2017 the Red Rose were blos­som­ing un­der their new boss – their 2015 World Cup de­ba­cle all but for­got­ten as they equalled the run of 18 straight vic­to­ries by a tier one na­tion (set by New Zealand, of course).

But Ire­land stormed from be­ing the third best team in the world in Jan­uary 2018 to sec­ond by Novem­ber, just a point in the rank­ings be­hind the All Blacks.

De­spite their tremen­dous form, the Ir­ish do not have form on the game’s grand­est stage.

They have never even played a semi-fi­nal pre­vi­ously – elim­i­nated at the quar­ter-fi­nals in seven of the eight edi­tions of the tour­na­ment. Yet O’Driscoll says a last-four spot will not be enough judg­ing on cur­rent form.

“I don’t think this team thinks about get­ting to a World Cup semi-fi­nal like no other team has ever achieved. That’s not the fo­cus any­more, it’s about go­ing and win­ning it. Ac­tu­ally win the World Cup,” said the leg­endary Ire­land cen­tre – his na­tion’s most capped player (133) and high­est tryscorer (46).

“They’ll have to do it the hard way. The pool looks like it isn’t the most dif­fi­cult with Scot­land the hard­est game. But then in the quar­ter-fi­nal you’ve got New Zealand or South Africa, a mul­ti­tude of semi-fi­nal­ists, Wales or Aus­tralia.

“Wales have been a bo­gey team and en­joy play­ing against Ire­land, they’ll feel they can score points, so it’s far from a done deal.

“Then, pos­si­bly New Zealand in the fi­nal. There’s so many ifs, buts and maybes, but Ire­land, what they are con­trol­ling is their own per­for­mance and mak­ing them­selves very dif­fi­cult to beat.”

Apart from their scintillating form, and the enor­mous self­be­lief that will no doubt gen­er­ate head­ing into the tour­na­ment – the World Cup kicks-off in Tokyo on Septem­ber 20 – the awe­some depth chart out­go­ing coach Joe Sch­midt has cul­ti­vated has trans­formed Ire­land into a men­ac­ing force.

Af­ter the 2015 World Cup – the Ir­ish were hum­bled by a 43-20 de­feat to Ar­gentina in the quar­ters – Sch­midt made it his mis­sion to de­velop Ire­land’s depth, look­ing to be ‘three-deep’ in ev­ery po­si­tion.

Their start­ing XI, on pa­per and on the pitch, is lethal and key fig­ures like half-backs Johnny Sex­ton and Conor Mur­ray will have huge roles to play if Ire­land are to claim the Webb El­lis Tro­phy in the Land of the Ris­ing Sun.

But the fact that a trou­ble­some 12 months for lynch­pin Mur­ray with in­juries is al­most negated by the strength at scrum-half be­hind him – Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are far more than just bright back-ups – leaves them look­ing for­mi­da­ble, even though O’Driscoll re­mains cau­tious, es­pe­ically with the Six Na­tions on the hori­zon.

“They’ve been a com­ing team for a while now, and it’s their con­sis­tency that Ir­ish teams in the past prob­a­bly strug­gled with,” said the 39-year-old, who went on four tours with the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lions be­tween 2001 and 2013.

“On your bad day it’s 7 out of 10 and on your good day it’s a 9.5 out of 10. They’ve re­alised re­cently they don’t al­ways have to be fully on their game to de­liver and score points.

“De­fen­sively they’ve been in­cred­i­ble. They’re the best de­fen­sive team in world rugby, the best drilled team, there’s an un­der­stand­ing. “At this mo­ment they’re in great shape but 9-10 months can be a long time de­pend­ing on what hap­pens. There’s still one or two in­di­vid­u­als we can’t af­ford to lose but on the whole we’re in very good shape.”

The Ir­ish suc­cess and de­feats of the All Blacks have been mas­ter­minded by none other than their mes­siah-like coach Sch­midt – al­though the for­mer school­teacher will ring the bell on his Ire­land ten­ure af­ter the World Cup and re­turn to his home­land.

And O’Driscoll feels be­com­ing only the sec­ond non-south­ern hemi­sphere heavy­weight to taste vic­tory on the grand­est stage af­ter Eng­land 16 years ago would be a fit­ting end to the Kiwi’s era.

“I think these play­ers who’ve not known any other coach will re­alise what a phe­nom­e­nal as­set he’s been to Ir­ish rugby,” added ex- Le­in­ster stal­wart O’Driscoll, talk­ing to Sport360° as an HSBC am­bas­sador at the Dubai Rugby Sevens last month.

“Jonny’s (Sex­ton) older but the guys in their late 20s who’ve come through Le­in­ster where he was for three years and won the Heineken Cup, the Sean O’Brien’s of the world, then go­ing into Ire­land for five years and win­ning three Six Na­tions, a Grand Slam, beat­ing the All Blacks twice, beat­ing ev­ery tier one na­tion in 18 months.

“That’s not ever been done, any­thing close to it in Ir­ish rugby, so need­less to say he’s pretty revered around the coun­try. Peo­ple are dis­ap­pointed he’s go­ing but un­der­stand. There was a sense he was go­ing so we’re not shocked by the de­ci­sion.”

Asked if Sch­midt’s im­ped­ing de­par­ture means it’s a case of now or never for Ire­land at the World Cup, O’Driscoll added: “We al­ways used to say about New Zealand the best time to beat them is the next time you play them. And the World Cup is the next time we’ll get a chance.”

And while count­less Ir­ish fans will lament Sch­midt leav­ing, O’Driscoll be­lieves re­place­ment Andy Far­rell – Sch­midt’s de­fence coach for the last two years – has the pedi­gree re­quired to be a suc­cess. “I was in camp with him for the Lions and was very im­pressed with him back then,” he said of the for­mer dual code Eng­land in­ter­na­tional, who’s been in­stru­men­tal in Ire­land’s rise.

“I know him, he’s very well spo­ken, de­liv­ers mes­sages bril­liantly, has got his de­fence fir­ing, he’s an am­bi­tious coach so he has all the hall­marks to be a good coach, no doubt.

“I’ve only heard good things from the lads. They were ex­cited be­ing coached by him in 2013 (with the Lions) and when that op­por­tu­nity arose in 2016 again for him to come into the Ir­ish set-up, they jumped at it.

“He seems to have the tem­plate to beat New Zealand in his de­fen­sive sys­tems. Four times in the last five-six years and a draw (with the Lions and Eng­land), not many have that on their CV.”

Ire­land ex­pects: O’Driscoll says Ire­land will head to Ja­pan full of be­lief.

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