Ireland go bear-hunting in Rotorua
September 22, 2011
Paul O'Connell celebrates Ireland's stirring victory over Australia in Auckland © Getty Images
Ireland take on Russia on Sunday knowing that the biggest challenge that they are likely to face in Rotorua will be managing their fans' sense of expectancy.
On the back of their stirring upset win over Australia in Auckland last weekend, Declan Kidney's men are now being touted as potential Rugby World Cup finalists. That is a remarkable turnaround for a side which had plummeted to eighth in the IRB World Rankings after losing all four of their warm-up games. Their tournament-opening win over the United States did little to dispel the notion that the Irish were living on past glories, principally their 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam success.
However, all that has changed since Wellington. Indeed, the whole complexion of the World Cup has been significantly altered by Ireland's 15-6 triumph over the Wallabies, with the northern hemisphere's finest now set to line up on one side of the draw for the knockout stages with their rivals from the south on the other.
That has prompted giddy talk amongst Irish fans of a run to the final, which, on the evidence of their victory over Australia, the form side in world rugby heading into the tournament, is not beyond the realms of possibility. However, the Irish have rarely relished the tag of favourites and Kidney will be desperate to ensure that his players do not get distracted. There is a still a pool to be won. As captain Brian O'Driscoll stated after their win in Auckland, the job is only half done. They still need to pass two more tests to progress as victors of Pool C, starting with Russia in Rotorua.
The Bears looked a decent outfit on their tournament debut against the USA, a wonder try from Mike Petri the only difference between the two sides as the Eagles triumphed 13-6 in New Plymouth. However, they were routed 53-17 by what was essentially a second-string Italy side in their next outing, that result suggesting that Ireland's backs, who have yet to truly click as an attacking force in New Zealand, could finally be about to cut loose.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Andrew Trimble was perhaps the only Irish player to have emerged from the warm-up Tests with any credit whatsoever and yet he has been restricted to nothing more than a couple of substitute appearances in New Zealand thus far. However, with Keith Earls having been moved into the centre for this weekend's game in Rotorua, Trimble finally gets his chance to show what he can do on the left wing. Expect him to take it.
Ireland - Team News: There are eight changes in total to the side which beat the Wallabies. Earls replaces Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre and he will be joined in midfield by Paddy Wallace. There is a start for Fergus McFadden on the right wing in place of Tommy Bowe, while Ronan O'Gara and Isaac Boss are the chosen half-back pairing. In the pack, Leo Cullen comes in for Paul O'Connell and he will lead the side in the absence of O'Driscoll. Elsewhere, Donnacha Ryan replaces Stephen Ferries at blindside flanker, while hooker Sean Cronin and tight-head prop Tony Buckley come into the front-row in place of Rory Best and Mike Ross.
Russia - Player to Watch:Simplikevich impressed during the 2010 and 2011 Junior World Championships and after being handed his debut - he will look to put down a marker against Ireland.
Russia - Team News: Simplikevich is one of eight changes for this weekend's clash. Russia have a new front-row with hooker Valery Tsnobiliadze and prop Alexander Khrokin making their first starts of the tournament. In the second-row, Denis Antonov partners the Melbourne Rebels' Adam Byrnes. Alexander Yanyushkin will lead from scrum-half with Vasily Artemyev shifting to fullback.
Key Battle: The back of the scrum will be fascinating with Jamie Heaslip taking on the vastly experienced Victor Gresev. Heaslip has been overshadowed by the superb Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien thus far and will be out to put in an imperssive performance come Sunday.
Stats: Ireland's biggest ever Rugby World Cup win was a 64-7 rout of Namibia during the pool stages of the 2003 tournament in Australia.
Trivia: Tournament newcomers Russia are the 25th country to compete in the Rugby World Cup
"Most people in the world saw it as an upset against Australia, but in the squad we know when we're playing well or going all right. The senior players did a lot of talking during the build-up and they backed that up by playing well. But it's gone now and people have to get over that because there's no point getting two wins and then falling over your next two opponents."
"There is a strong Russian community in Australia. The nation, which is made of immigrants, embraces various cultures. So I can't say I don't feel Russian because I was born in Australia."
Prediction: Ireland may have made several changes to their starting line-up but they will still have far too much power and pace for a Russian side which was brutally exposed by Italy last time out. Resounding with for the Irish.
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