With domestic matters now well and truly wrapped up, we can turn our focus entirely to the World Cup which commences on the 9th of September. Of course the groundwork for the tournament theoretically began for Ireland after they were unceremoniously dumped out of the last competition in 2007 by Argentina, following a tournament which was an unmitigated disaster.
The preparation in 2007 was all wrong. The players looked the part following a couple of months work in the gym but were horribly off the pace throughout their brief dalliance with the 2007 competition, having played very little rugby in the run up to the event.
It was the year when Ireland dispatched England in such fine fashion in front of a truly electric crowd in the rugby team’s second ever outing at Croke Park. Eddie O’Sullivan decided on his starting fifteen for the World Cup that day and spent the next five months trying to avoid injuries to any of the chosen ones.
Consequently, Ireland were a shadow of their former selves and O’Sullivan was embarrassed. The then Irish coach was awarded a four year extension to his contract prior to the World Cup in a show of faith from the IRFU. Scorned by that misjudgement, there has been no such offering to Declan Kidney to date this time around, as his current contract expires after the World Cup.
So, are Ireland better equipped to make a serious impact on this year’s tournament? In a word: Yes. Hindsight is a great thing but Kidney will unquestionably take learnings from the mistakes of his predecessor. There are four ‘warm-up’ games in August; two against the French, one against England and the other facing Scotland. You may be certain that the front line players will be making appearances in these games, as well as the fringe players fighting it out to make that plane to New Zealand.
The fact that the Tri-Nations finishes up two weeks before the beginning of the World Cup amplifies the need for game time. The Southern Hemisphere sides will have had the benefit of playing together competitively for the previous two months and will be battle hardened. Ireland will need to hit the ground running as they face Australia in their second game.
What of the wellbeing of the Irish game compared to 2007? The provinces certainly look in ruder health with the current holders of the Heineken Cup and a Magners League between them. Connacht and Ulster had decent seasons to boot. Contrast this with two Heineken Cup quarter final exits for Leinster and Munster four years ago at the hands of Wasps and Scarlets respectively.
Although it was not a vintage Six Nations campaign this year, aside from a hugely impressive win over the English in the final game, there is a greater pool of players to choose from this time around. The prospect of losing O’Gara in the lead up to the 2007 tournament was genuinely terrifying. At one point Jeremy Manning was being primed to deputy for ROG. Yes, Jeremy Manning.
The emergence of Jonny Sexton has been a blessing for Irish rugby and has thrown down the challenge to Ronan O’Gara, which the Cork man has duly accepted. Elsewhere, the backrow looks potentially explosive with the possibility of an O’Brien, Heaslip, Ferris combination. David Wallace is far from finished either as he displayed so powerfully in the destruction of England in March.
There are fewer positions now than in 2007 where Ireland lack strength in depth. Given recent injuries, full back is perhaps one of them. Rob Kearney needs to get playing some rugby and quickly. Otherwise, there seems to be more options across the board and the competition for places to make the squad will be fierce.
Much will depend on the split Kidney chooses upon. O’Sullivan brought seventeen forwards and thirteen backs to France in 2007, with the prospect of facing Argentina in the pool stages at the very forefront of his mind. ‘Horses for Courses’, he would say.
Kidney, however, may well go for a 16-14 split. There are massive calls everywhere you look, with the likes of Fergus McFadden, Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin and Tomás O’Leary needing to put their very best foot forward when given an opportunity.
The Irish side were overly confident and got their preparation wrong going into the World Cup in 2007. Kidney may have his flaws but it is difficult to see him making the same mistakes as O’Sullivan did. Ireland are in a different space now than they were four years ago. There is a stronger mindset and a winning culture. In the four years that have passed since the last World Cup, Irish sides have won a Grand Slam, three Heineken Cups and three Magners Leagues.