After last week’s shock defeat to World Cup hosts Japan, many will believe that the Irish are dead in the water.
With a likely match-up against reigning champions New Zealand, pundits give the men in green little chance of progressing past the World Cup quarter-finals, a feat they are yet to achieve in the tournament’s 32-year history. But is this a foregone conclusion?
Ireland looked tired and devoid of attacking flair without their chief playmaker Johnny Sexton in their ranks, with regular stalwarts such as Conor Murray and CJ Stander failing to make the grade on the biggest stage of all. Even Ireland’s talismanic flyer Jacob Stockdale could do little to curb the relentless nature of Japan’s attack, buoyed by a partisan crowd at the Shizuoka Stadium.
This was followed by an underwhelming bonus-point victory against Russia in which Ireland laboured to a 35-0 win that won’t leave Rassie Erasmus or Steve Hansen shaking in their boots for a potential last-eight showdown.
A bonus-point victory over Samoa would guarantee Ireland a space in the quarter-finals with the true fate of Pool A lying firmly in the hands of the hosts, who could top the group with a win in their remaining fixture against Scotland. Let us presume that this is the case and Ireland come runners-up in the group to face the All Blacks on October 19.
The pressure on New Zealand going into this fixture would be immense and they will go into the game with the favourite tag firmly stapled to their ear – a tag they took in their stride for so long, until recently. With losses in 2019 to southern hemisphere counterparts South Africa and Australia still fresh in the memory, the aura of invincibility that has followed the men in black on the international stage is in tatters.
If we delve into the archives of the Webb Ellis Cup, we can see that group-stage form isn’t the ultimate barometer of a team’s chances of success later on in the tournament.
Back in 2007, England were humbled 0-36 by the Springboks in what was billed as the Group A decider. With two games left to go in the pool stage, many feared that their World Cup defence would not outlive the preliminary rounds. Five weeks later a galvanised England side made the final, only to lose narrowly again to the South Africans.
In 2011 France were stunned 14-19 by Tonga in a huge upset. That same French side went on to make the knockout stages, brushing aside England and Wales before agonisingly missing out on the top prize by a single point to the All Blacks at Eden Park.
What do these teams of years gone by share with Joe Schmidt’s men? The answer lies in one pivotal area: experience.
In 2007, England looked to a nucleus of former World Cup winning men such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey and Jonny Wilkinson to lead their World Cup revival. The French relied on the likes of Dimitri Yachvili, Vincent Clerc and Thierry Dusautoir to turn around their tournament.
These players were the bedrock upon which their sides’ World Cup assault was launched and that experience and tactical nous steadied the ship in their tumultuous campaigns. Both of these sides were forced to adopt a siege mentality against the damning press pieces and fan backlash to come together and truly unite towards a common goal of escaping an embarrassing exit.
Ireland now find themselves in that same pressure cooker in which England and France once dwelled. Can they adopt the same siege mentality that has proved so successful in tournaments gone by?
The answer to that question is yes, and if that is the case, then we are looking at a formidable Irish side going into the knockout stages – and one that is capable of going all the way.
Despite Ireland’s loss to Japan, there is certainly that same bedrock to build upon as we move on in the tournament. Here are some names to back up that claim.
Rory Best (37), Jonathan Sexton (34), Rob Kearney (33), Cian Healy (32), Keith Earls (32), Peter O’Mahony (30), Conor Murray (30). See where I’m going?
These men have won Heineken Cup finals, Lions Series and Grand Slams but perhaps, more importantly, they have come through adversity. Look back to 2013 when the Lions had to overcome a second Test loss to the Wallabies to eventually win in the series decider at the ANZ Stadium.
In 2014, these players made up the spine of a side that won the 6 Nations with a title decider at the Stade de France despite losing to England in the third round. A year later they retained the trophy after losing a thriller in Cardiff.
Perhaps the most telling statistic that can be attributed to all seven of these Irish starters is that they have all played on winning sides against the All Blacks, on multiple occasions. Not something that can be said for many north of the equator.
If Ireland are to take the field on November 2 to fight it out for World Cup glory then they will surely need a return to form for their halfback pairing of Murray and Sexton. Under their stewardship, they have defeated the All Blacks twice with Ireland and the Lions (Kieran Marmion playing No.9 in Ireland’s victory over New Zealand in 2018).
If they tick, Ireland will tick and that will be the catalyst on which an Irish World Cup victory can be achieved.
No side has ever lost a game in the pool stages and gone on to win the Webb Ellis trophy. Some have come close – England in ’91 and ’07 along with France in 2011.
Joe Schmidt will believe his side can emulate this feat and go on to make their first World Cup semi-final in history and perhaps beyond.
In a year of incredulous sporting comebacks, surely Ireland couldn’t go on to become the second northern hemisphere world champions.