Is 2015 Rugby World Cup one tournament too far for ageing Ireland?
Ireland, 8/1 fourth-favourites with Coral to win the Rugby World Cup, need their players at the top of their game to build on their back-to-back Six Nations successes this autumn on the global stage.
Joe Schmidt’s side are regarded as top dogs in their World Cup group, Pool D, as a result, but this doesn’t take into account the tough scrap the Irish had to defend their Six Nations crown in the spring, which ultimately came down to points difference.
Paul O’Connell captained his country to retain that title after long-serving compatriot Brian O’Driscoll called time on his career. It’s this sort of experience that stands Ireland in good stead, with O’Connell set to turn out at his fifth and final World Cup. Beyond that, the 35-year-old will move clubs to play in France with Toulon.
Staying with that dual theme of elder statesmen and experienced Irish internationals, Schmidt’s 45-strong training squad contains 13 men aged 30 or over, and just two uncapped players in Jack Conan and Tadhg Furlong.
Conan, the youngest and least experienced of all the players, will be keen to show his worth in training and during the World Cup build-up as he looks to get the number eight jersey.
Furlong, meanwhile, cuts an imposing figure and is coming through as a strong tight head prop with good feet showing potential to force his way into contention for selection in the final squad.
Schmidt blooding so few youngsters may be cause for concern among fans and punters who are interested in the longevity of Irish rugby. Loyalty to a roster that has won consecutive Six Nations titles is both fair and to be expected, but it also raises doubt about what future plans beyond the short-term in 2015 entail.
As ever, Irish head coach Schmidt has been keeping very tight-lipped on his selections, though there are some guaranteed spots. Johnny Sexton, one of the best fly-halfs in the world, already has the number 10 shirt waiting for him.
Joining Sexton should be Rory Best (pictured with him above), Richard Strauss and Sean O’Brien, barring injuries. Such big names and mainstays of the Ireland setup are perfect role models for Conan and Furlong.
Some might say Schmidt is showing uncertainty by keeping so quiet about his squad selection. Putting increased pressure on both his players and himself, as he only has until August 31st to name his World Cup roster, Schmidt should use preparation friendlies to decide who he takes into Ireland’s Pool D opener against Canada on September 19th.
A lengthy pre-season training camp comes to an end with their first World Cup warm-up match with Wales on August 8th, so will Schmidt’s veteran players keep the few youngsters keen to impress cool headed enough? Under the onfield leadership of O’Connell this is a certainty.
Sure to be feeling confident from those consecutive Six Nations wins, Ireland will nonetheless need to make history at the World Cup in order to follow up such success. They have never made it past the quarter-finals, but should surely be targeting the semis minimum.
Encountering 11/8 tournament favourites New Zealand at the business end could prove a test so stern, however, that the Irish will once again just merely be also-rans. The All-Blacks are the only side they have failed to beat recently, a fact that will not sit well with Kiwi native Schmidt.
While that is a question which can only be posed come October, Pool D should hold little fear for Ireland. Six Nations foes France and Italy hold no fear for them after victories earlier in the year, while group minnows Canada and Romania will simply by trying to limit the scores made against them.
As a result of their exploits over the last 18 months, Coral make the Irish odds-on 8/13 favourites to top Pool D, and thus reach the knockout phase of the Rugby World Cup.
Schmidt’s selection and overall decision to stand by tried and tested players will be judged on how they perform both in the build-up to and during the tournament finals.