Time Ireland stepped up to the mark
September 15, 2011
Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton had a poor day with the boot against the USA last weekend © Getty Images
Adam Ashley-Cooper Quade Cooper Gordon D'Arcy Will Genia Jamie Heaslip Digby Ioane Pat McCabe Sean O'Brien Brian O'Driscoll Radike Samo Johnny Sexton
It is telling that the zenith of Ireland's involvement in the Rugby World Cup is a narrow defeat to their opponents in Auckland this weekend, Australia. For the most part, the Irish have known nothing other than unmitigated failure and desperate disappointment on the game's grandest stage. They have a chance to change that this weekend. The only problem is that their chances of doing so appear slim.
If the last-gasp 19-18 defeat by the Wallabies in Dublin in the quarter-finals of the 1991 World Cup remains the highlight of Ireland's tournament history, then their nadir came in France four years ago when they went into the tournament tipped up as 'dark horses' only to bow out at the pool stages after losses to France and Argentina and embarrassingly hard-earned wins over Namibia and Georgia. Those were dark days for the men from the Emerald Isle but their Grand Slam success in the 2009 Six Nations seemed to herald a new dawn for Irish rugby.
However, two years on and Ireland seem in real danger of underwhelming once more, having arrived in New Zealand on the back of four successive defeats and then opening their campaign with an uninspiring 22-10 victory over the USA.
The players are insisting, though, that they remain capable of producing the form which saw them go undefeated for all of 2009. That may very well be true - though there has been scant evidence of late to support such a claim - but in Australia they are running into a side very much on the up.
The Wallabies clinched the Tri-Nations with a stirring victory over the No.1 ranked All Blacks before then laying claim to the title of the most exciting and dynamic side in world rugby at the moment by sweeping Italy aside with a thrilling second-half display in their tournament opener in North Shore City on Sunday. It was a performance which underlined both the Wallabies' growing maturity and the enormity of the task ahead of an Ireland side desperate to finally make their mark on the World Cup.
Australia - Player to Watch: Adam Ashley-Cooper described Brian O'Driscoll as a "freak" (in the nicest possible sense), admitting that he was instructed to study the Ireland captain closely and learn as much as possible about the art of back-line play. Ashley-Cooper certainly appears to have taken that advice on board because he has been in fine form of late and is likely to cause Ireland all sorts of problems on Saturday.
Australia - Team News: Australia head coach Robbie Deans has made just one change to the side which opened with a win over the Azzurri, with James O'Connor coming into the back-three for Digby Ioane, who fractured a thumb during the game against the Italians. O'Connor's promotion to the starting line-up creates a space on the bench for Drew Mitchell.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Jonathan Sexton is a man under pressure on account of his poor goal-kicking display in New Plymouth and his failure to get his back-line going. With veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara waiting in the wings, Sexton needs to deliver a big performance in the biggest game of his international career.
Ireland - Team News: Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien all return after sitting out the win over the Eagles as they continued their respective recoveries from minor injuries. Kearney missed the game with a groin stream but he has been passed fit to reclaim the fullback berth from Geordan Murphy, who is struggling with a hamstring problem and has dropped out of the squad altogether. Healy slots back in at loose-head for Tom Court after recovering from the eye injury which delayed his arrival in New Zealand, while Sean O'Brien, who strained knee ligaments in last month's warm-up loss at home to France, returns to the back-row at the expense of Denis Leamy. The only other change to the side which defeated the Eagles 22-10 in New Plymouth comes at scrum-half, with Conor Murray making way for Eoin Reddan.
Key Battle: For many, David Pocock has replaced Richie McCaw as the No.1 openside flanker in world rugby but his credentials will be sorely put to the test this weekend by Sean O'Brien, a back-row who has established himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game with a string of barnstorming displays for Ireland and Leinster over the past 12 months. This should be one of the most explosive showdowns in the entire tournament.
Trivia: Ireland are the only one of the 'Home Nations' never to have made the semi-finals.
Stats: Chris Latham is Australia's record try-scorer in the Rugby World Cup, with 11.
"Ireland are going to be tough. It seems to me that games are being won around the 60-65 minute mark. We expect a pretty tight encounter right up until then."
" This is the one we are really looking forward to. This is the one there's no problem getting yourself ready for. You have to back yourself and back your belief. There is the big performance we need in this team, we just have to make sure we don't force it out of ourselves."
Prediction: Ireland have a history of fronting up against the Wallabies only to come up short. Expect a similar story this weekend.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton
Cards, kicks, slips and scores: It's The Week in Pictures, the finest snaps from the last seven days of rugby
Huw Richards Rewinds to 1975 when three Welsh legends were handed their debuts and assesses their legacy
Seven places in the Champions Cup quarter-finals are up for grabs; we break down the permutations for each group in the final round of matches