As it stands there is a huge deal of optimism among Irish fans for World Cup 2019. However, the horrors of World Cups past must dwell somewhere in the back of the mind. As a nation, we have an undeniably poor record at the Rugby World Cup.
Historically the Irish Rugby Football Union seem to have held a narrow view of success. The Six Nations (the cash-cow); in particular beating England was the hallmark of success. The next season, the next game and building a team weren’t dwelled upon. Warren Gatland, I’m sure can testify that there is a price of going against the IRFU’s ideas.
The Rugby World Cup has become a test of not necessarily who has the best team; but who has the best squad. Any sheepskin wearer who remembers ‘the old Lansdowne Road’ will tell you how rugby used to be a ‘fifteen man game’; among other things I’m sure. What the vast majority of supporters don’t seem to realise is that not only is rugby now a 22/23 man game, but it’s also becoming a 30 man game, especially in the case of the World Cup. Any team who wants to compete must have at least one viable replacement in every position; if not two. The All Blacks rarely lack this facility. The unattractive, steady style of Stephen Donald that crossed our television screens for 55 minutes is one of the reasons the All Blacks were able to stumble to victory in 2011’s World Cup Final.
Squad-rotation was not embraced, or even fully understood in Ireland until Joe Schmidt’s arrival in 2013. Declan Kidney’s selection during the 2011 Six-Nations saw less than five enforced changes to Ireland’s starting squad. The Tri-Nations Championship, on the other side of the globe, saw 28 changes to the starting All Blacks side in the three games of the shortened Championship. New Zealand didn’t win the Tri-Nations Championship in 2011. Admittedly, the All Blacks won the Bledisloe Cup; something that no Kiwi could willingly let fall into Australian hands. The same happened in 2015. The Kiwis expect to win matches; but more importantly, they expect to win World Cups. They don’t mind losing against their regular opposition if it means winning the World Cup. Short-term sacrifice, long-term gain. Is it time for us as a nation to accept that risking losing in the Six Nations, by starting inexperienced players may be our best shot at the Webb Ellis trophy? It is fifteen years since England completed the grand slam and a World Cup win in one season: The game has moved on.
Granted, winning is most certainly a habit. However, if members of the panel are only receiving the usual token 10 minutes at the end of games; are they really developing this habit? Players get injured at the World Cup; that’s just a fact we must accept. Paul O’Connell and Johnathan Sexton in 2015; the list goes on. This is not a misfortune solely reserved for the Irish. Dan Carter tore his groin adductor in 2011; ruling him out of the World Cup completely. Preparing a viable backup plan for disasters such as this is one of the reasons the All Blacks have often appeared unbeatable in the past.
The man on everybody’s minds seems to be Joey Carbery. This is a player who isn’t short on ability. Schmidt put the playbook aside to watch the Joey Carbery show against the USA last November. Carbery is also gaining some invaluable experience under pressure at Thomond Park. However, neither accurately simulate World Cup pressure; the kind that comes with world-class opposition. Carbery made no other appearance in the Autumn Internationals. If Sexton does get injured, the ball will quite literally fall at the feet of this 23-year-old. With Ross Byrne showing consistent format Leinster the depth in the squad is certainly there. However, having someone who can play at outside half and having an outside-half who can deal with the pressure of kicking a crucial penalty in an international test match are two different things.
Young Jordan Larmour is in a similar situation at Fullback. The youngster has talent in abundance, but a test Fullback must be a steady player under pressure, particularly in defence. Rob Kearney has built his career largely on the peace of mind he offers his teammates. This is something which Larmour too will learn if given the opportunity.
With Carbery getting the token final 10 minutes in international games; and sometimes not even that, it is difficult to see his game and pressure management improving unless something changes.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Giving all members of the squad opportunities to play in high-pressure test games cannot be framed as anything but adequate preparation. Healthy competition for places and strength in depth may be the difference between going the distance in September and crashing out in the early stages once again.
For once we have what seems to be the right group of players, under the right coach, with the right attitude to go and win the World Cup. The fans and the country deserve to see this team go close. The squad deserve the opportunity to be in contention.
By Matthew Dillon – Sports Writer