With the Tri Nations now safely wrapped up in All Black arms having sized up the strengths of their fellow southern hemisphere world cup challengers, its time to turn our attention back to the north and consider the merits of the best of the northern hemisphere’s teams. First up, the runners up in this year’s Six Nations competition, Ireland.
Many pundits have named the men in green, coupled with the French, as being the best chances the northern hemisphere have of retaining the World Cup. There is always a touch of ‘the best of the rest’ about such compliments, especially when they come from southern hemisphere commentators. Given New Zealand’s dominance of all and sundry over the last couple of seasons this is to be expected however as Australia recently showed, the All Blacks can be beaten and by worse teams than Ireland.
The two areas where the improving Wallabies troubled New Zealand in this year’s Bledisloe cup games were the lineout and the midfield. In both these areas the Irish are very strong.
The Irish midfield’s qualities are well known and the combination of Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll can cause any team difficulty. O’Driscoll is a much more dangerous ball carrier than Australia’s main strike weapon, Stirling Mortlock, and in Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey and Geordan Murphy Ireland have the sort of traditional finishers that running-rugby teams need.
Marshalled by the red-haired Munster captain, Paul O’Connell, the Irish lineout is as strong as the rest of their forward game. Last November in torrential rain at Landsdowne Road the Irish forwards were able to inflict their will on the touring Wallaby pack in a way that not even the All Blacks have been able to do for a long time. That game was played tight and hard however the backrow of Denis Leamy, Simon Easterby and Neil Best excel at supporting their talented backline out wide.
Where Australia have the advantage over Ireland is in their defence, their knowledge of the New Zealand players and their experience of having beaten them, something the Irish have never done. In 2006 the Irish troubled the All Blacks at home and with 20 minutes remaining in the first test the Irish held a well deserved 23 – 15 lead before being overrun amidst four Luke McAllister penalties to lose 34 – 23. The Irish grit continued in the second test before the home side won out 27 – 17.
Despite the efforts of this tour the best Ireland have to show for their encounters with the All Blacks is 19 losses and a 10-all draw way back in 1973. That is a rather large monkey to have on a team’s back however if the two teams meet in the world cup, the All Blacks won’t be without their own monkey – consecutive semi-final defeats will surely be reminded them many times until that spell is broken.
A shot at New Zealand is not however guaranteed and Ireland face the most difficult of passages to the finals. Inclusion in Pool C, the somewhat dramatically titled pool of death, means a hard struggle against both France and Argentina. The Pumas thrive on field position and forward dominance and despite their international ranking still seem to catch teams off guard with their confrontational play. Should a trigger happy referee be appointed for either of Argentina’s clashes with France or Ireland, the Argentine mantra of field position and penalties could prove dangerous, particularly for the French who have struggled with on field discipline in the past.
Qualifying first in Pool C means the only time Ireland will play New Zealand is if both teams make the final. Qualifying second in this pool means a quarter final showdown against New Zealand, the unbackable favourites to qualify atop Pool D. Ireland have yet to move passed the quarter final stage and the canny planning of coach O’Sullivan will not have over looked this possibility.
Elimination at quarter final stage is something that very few kiwi supporters will have even dignified with serious consideration. However to O’Sullivan and the Irish team, defeating the All Blacks in the quarter finals must be a very real prospect if they dare to dream of world cup glory.