Ireland can make the Rugby World Cup final
Irish coach Declan Kidney and skipper Brian O’Driscoll have performed miracles at the Rugby World Cup. They’ve turned a nightmare four straight losses in the lead-up to the Cup, into four wins when it counted.
And in the process have given themselves a big sniff at a first-time RWC final appearance by playing an intelligent mixture of attacking rugby with rock solid defence.
The rugby world wrote off Ireland pre-Cup when they lost to Scotland 10-6, France 19-12 and 26-22, and England 20-9.
But come RWC time, the men-in-green have beaten the USA 22-10, the Wallabies 15-6, Russia 62-12, and Italy 36-6.
Ireland (world-ranked 6) take on Wales (7) in the first quarter final, the winner to meet either England (4) or France (5) in the semis, neither of whom are playing consistent rugby, especially with France beaten by Tonga.
Ireland’s in by far the easier half of the knock-out draw with the world’s top three ranked nations in the bottom half.
The Boks (2) take on the hot-and-cold Wallabies (3), the All Blacks (1) meet Argentina (8). For once the IRB world rankings are spot-on.
And punters won’t be far off the mark tipping an Ireland-All Blacks final, depending on how rapidly the injury toll rises.
The hardest hit are the world’s three best sides. The All Blacks have lost champion goal-kicker-playmaker Dan Carter, that’s huge – the Boks have lost blockbusting centre and long-range goal-kicker Frans Steyn, another big loss – while the Wallabies are minus No 8 Wycliff Palu, and winger Drew Mitchell – all four out of the tournament.
But their replacements are well short of the mark – Aaron Cruden for Carter, Zane Kirchner for Steyn, with Matt Goddard and Lachie Turner in for Palu and Mitchell.
The All Blacks are the hardest hit, with Colin Slade inked in as first choice fly-half-goal-kicker. That selection won’t win the men-in-black the coveted Cup.
As radical as it might sound, Piri Weepu – the best half-back ahead of Jimmy Cowan, and Andy Ellis – would be a far more productive fly-half-goal-kicker than Slade, in tandem with Cowan.
Coach Graham Henry has another selection headache, where to slot in Sonny Bill Williams? The big bloke is in devastating form, scoring a try and setting up three others in the 79-15 romp against Canada, and his defence is rock solid.
SBW would be first choice in any one of the other seven quarter finalists lineups, but Henry has him inked in for the bench. How can he ignore such firepower?
The same can be said of Boks coach Peter de Villiers with long-serving captain John Smit as hooker, or the far better performed and more versatile Bismarck du Plessis.
de Villiers prefers Smit, and there’s no doubt the Wallabies would agree to make full use of his immobility.
And that leaves Wallaby coach Robbie Deans, who chose the erratic Hodgson to back up David Pocock rather than the more experienced Phil Waugh, or George Smith.
Not that it matters. If Pocock is injured again, there goes in the Cup in one fell swoop – he is irreplaceable.
Nathan Sharpe or Dan Vickerman as James Horwill’s lock partner – Scott Higginbotham or Rocky Elsom as blindside flanker – and Berrick Barnes at inside centre with Adam Ashley-Cooper outside him, Digby Ioane and James O’Connor on the wings, with Kurtley Beale at full-back – leaving Rob Horne and Anthony Faingaa hovering in the mix.
The positive moves would be Sharpe, Higginbotham, with Horne and Faingaa bench prospects at best.
Next Sunday against the Boks will be Deans’ biggest litmus test to date in 53 internationals – career defining.
In the last World Cup played in France, both the All Blacks with Henry at the helm, and John Connolly coaching the Wallabies, were unceremoniously bundled out in the quarters.
It’s been a four-year long wait to erase the memory, and the embarrassment.
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