Some months ago I predicted that Australia would see Ireland in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Having watched Ireland carefully, my view has been that they were the dark horse to take out the title of world champions.
However, this was predicated on the basis of a fit Irish squad and more specifically, a fit Paul O’Connell.
O’Connell is the best lock in world rugby and will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time. He made his debut against Wales in 2002 and 13 years later he is still playing majestic rugby. He is the best kind of leader – one who leads by example.
He has the speed and athleticism of a backrower and the ability to survey the landscape and think tactically in the heat of battle.
It is the cruellest of fates that he has been struck down by a hamstring injury and effectively ruled out of the business end of the Rugby World Cup.
The man deserves so much more.
And in this most unfortunate injury the seeds of Ireland’s exit from the tournament have been sown.
Ireland may still get past Argentina in the quarter-finals but it will not be easy. In three World Cup meetings Ireland have only defeated Argentina once in 2003, losing in 1999 and 2007.
Ireland are decimated by injury after defeating France 24-9 to top Pool D. They have lost not only captain O’Connell, but their star flyhalf Johnny Sexton and flanker Peter O’Mahony. On top of this their man of the match against France and Irish No.7 Sean O’Brien is likely to be suspended for the clash against Argentina after admitting to punching French lock Pascal Pape.
These losses would make any team start to lose faith.
However, Ireland are not just any team. They are the 2015 six nation champions and that is no mean feat.
There is something you just have to love about the Irish. A country that has seen its fair share of troubles, the Irish spirit remains as strong as ever. They are used to setbacks and adversity. It is for this reason I believe they will still defeat Argentina in the quarter-final.
Argentina have come through their pool largely unscathed. They have lost centre Marcelo Bosch who was given a one-week suspension for a dangerous tackle during the Pumas’ final Pool C game against Namibia.
Even if Ireland get past Argentina, it will not be an easy match.
Australia play Scotland in one of the other quarter-finals and should emerge victorious. This would see Ireland try and overcome Australia in one of the semi-finals – a bridge too far, given the circumstances.
By this time they will be more depleted, bruised and battered as Argentina will not roll over and play dead in the quarter-final but will make Ireland earn every point they get.
There is no doubt Australia are the form team in this tournament. Relatively injury free, the Wallabies have shown their entire squad is formidable. While not detracting from Scotland, it seems most unlikely that they will not have the firepower to overcome a quietly confident and composed Wallabies outfit.
Australia are on course for a World Cup final berth.
South Africa, Wales, New Zealand and France will have a battle royale on the other side of the draw. I expect to see South Africa and New Zealand in the other semi-final and New Zealand meeting Australia in the final.