Ireland out to make amends
September 9, 2011
As ever, Ireland's hopes of glory hinge on legendary centre Brian O'Driscoll © Getty Images
Four years ago Ireland travelled to the World Cup in France in confidence. They left in disarray after a humiliating exit at the end of the pool stages. The survivors of that disastrous campaign are hoping to exorcise a few demons in New Zealand and that means hitting the ground running with a morale-boosting win against the United States in New Plymouth on Sunday.
Ominously for the Irish, their warm-up schedule has been just as underwhelming as it was in 2007. In fact, that is sugar-coating it - things have been much worse this time around. Whereas a clearly undercooked Ireland actually managed to eek out a win over Italy in Belfast just before they left for Bordeaux, they have arrived in New Zealand on the back of four successive defeats, a calamitous run which has seen them drop to eighth in the IRB World Rankings.
However, head coach Declan Kidney believes that he was right to insist on a rigorous pre-tournament fixture list - and two clashes with France sandwiched in between meetings with Scotland and England most certainly was that - and we will find out if he was right at full-time on Sunday.
Certainly, Ireland can ill-afford a below-par performance against an American side that is not short on quality, or indeed motivation, given that not only is their head coach former Eddie O'Sullivan, the man who oversaw Ireland's disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign, but the game falls on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.
Ireland - Player to Watch: No.8 Jamie Heaslip has fallen shy of his formidable form last season in the past six months and Ireland will be looking to him to help build momentum against the USA. In Sean O'Brien's continued absence Heaslip will take on even greater responsibility in ensuring Ireland get over the gainline.
Ireland - Team News: Conor Murray will make his full Test debut for Ireland having beaten Eoin Reddan to the scrum-half slot. Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney are left out of the squad, but coach Declan Kidney has said their absence is purely precautionary. Geordan Murphy and Shane Jennings, therefore, continue at fullback and openside flanker. Gordon D'Arcy has recovered from a calf injury in order to line-up alongside Brian O'Driscoll in midfield while Andrew Trimble drops to the bench with Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe filling the midfield berths.
USA - Player to Watch: Winger Taku Ngwenya lit up the World Cup stage in France four years ago - can he make a similar impact this time around?
USA - Team News: Flanker Todd Clever will lead a side that shows a number of changes to that which was beaten 20-14 by Japan in their final World Cup warm-up clash last month. Roland Suniula will make only his second start at fly-half and his brother Andrew links up with Paul Emerick in a new-look midfield. There is also a return for Ngwenya while up front Shawn Pittman comes in at loose-head, John van der Giessen gets the nod at lock and Nic Johnson anchors the back-row.
Key Battle: If the Eagles are to make any significant impression on the Irish then their back-row trio of Louis Stanfill, Todd Clever and Nic Johnson will need to ensure a difficult day at the office for their rivals Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip
Trivia: Only three sides (France, Tonga and Fiji) have picked up more yellow cards than the USA (5) in the history of the World Cup.
Stats: Keith Wood set a new record for the number of tries scored by a hooker in a World Cup fixture when he dotted four times in Ireland's win over the US in the 1999 tournament.
"It's a big call given it's our first game in the World Cup, but what he's been doing merits his inclusion."
"Motivation isn't going to be an issue for these lads, they're always easy to fire up. It's going to be emotional, I think. For me, part of my job is to contain the emotion. If they get too emotional, they'll make mistakes, and if they make mistakes they'll pay a big price."
Prediction: Ireland to put their nightmare preparations behind them with a strong victory over the USA and deliver a timely boost to their confidence ahead of bigger tests.
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