With the 2015 Rugby World Cup now just days away, we take a closer look at each of the competing nations. Next up…
World Cup track record: Ireland have participated in all seven Rugby World Cups, failing to make the quarter-finals on two occasions in 1999, when they were knocked out in the play-off by Argentina, and in 2007 when they suffered two defeats in the pool stages. They have never advanced past the quarter-final stage in any tournament to date.
1999: Quarter-final play-offs
2007: Pool stages
2011 World Cup:
Eager to make up for the disappointment of four years ago in France, Ireland enjoyed an outstanding pool stage and were being talked about as contenders to win the title. A 22-10 win over the USA kicked off their campaign before the crucial fixture against Australia six days later, when Ireland stunned the Wallabies to win 15-6 thanks to the boots of Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O’Gara. Victories over Russia and Italy followed to secure top spot for Ireland in Pool C, putting them through to a quarter-final against Six Nations rivals Wales. However Ireland fell behind early to a try from Shane Williams and couldn’t fight back in time, going out of the tournament.
World Cup Stats: P30, W17, D0, L13
– Most RWC appearances: Brian O’Driscoll (17)
– Most appearances: Brian O’Driscoll (133)
– Top RWC points scorer: Ronan O’Gara (93)
– Top points scorer: Ronan O’Gara (1083)
– Top RWC try scorers: Brian O’Driscoll (7)
– Top try scorer: Brian O’Driscoll (46)
Form: A second successive Six Nations title for Ireland in 2015, but they had to earn it, edging out England and Wales on points difference. After opening up with wins over Italy and France, they really laid down a marker with a comfortable victory over England. A narrow loss in Wales ended their Grand Slam hopes but they finished by thrashing Scotland to claim the title. Prior to that in November they had beaten both South Africa and Australia to underline their credentials as World Cup contenders. Their World Cup warm-up games started with a convincing win away to Wales, before edging out Scotland in Dublin. They then lost a return fixture against the Welsh on home soil.
Coach: Huge success with Irish province Leinster made Joe Schmidt the ideal candidate to take over from Ireland head coach Declan Kidney in 2013. The New Zealander arrived in Dublin from Top 14 side Clermont and was an instant hit, guiding Leinster to two European titles and a Pro12 championship. Renowned for his tactical approach and game plans, Schmidt’s time with Ireland has seen the national side win two Six Nations titles back-to-back in 2014 and 2015, defeat South Africa and Australia and a rise in the World Rugby rankings from eighth to third. All very impressive in a very short space of time, with Schmidt arriving in November 2013 and nearly achieving what had been previously impossible when Ireland came so close to defeating the All Blacks for the first time. Schmidt’s coaching career began with Bay of Plenty in New Zealand before working as an assistant coach with Super Rugby franchise the Blues. He joined Clermont in 2007, where he worked alongside current Scotland boss Vern Cotter. Schmidt signed a contract extension in July 2015 to keep him as Ireland coach until 2017.
Captain: The word legend is often overused in sport but not when it comes to Paul O’Connell. The giant second row is respected the world over for his leadership abilities and committed style of play in the forward packs of Munster and Ireland. O’Connell has also captained the British and Irish Lions on their tour to South Africa in 2009. O’Connell made his debut for Ireland back in 2002 and has gone on to win over 100 caps for his country, including a further seven for the Lions, while playing 174 games for Munster. In 2015 he signed to play for the current European Champions, Toulon, after 14 years dedicated service for Munster and Ireland.
2015 will also be O’Connell’s fourth Rugby World Cup, having featured in 2003, 2007 and 2011. It will also be his farewell to international rugby after a decorated career that has included winning a Lions series in 2013 and three Six Nations titles including one Grand Slam back in 2009. Regarded as one of the great lock forwards of all time, O’Connell will be missed on that international stage, but is not done just yet.
Key players: Ireland are arguably stronger than ever across the board from 1 to 15 heading into the World Cup, having successfully moved on from the retirements of record holders Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll. O’Connell of course has a major role to play up front but he will be well supported by the Leinster trio of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. Healy is one of the best carrying loosehead props in the game today whilst being a destructive scrummager, although he has been injured for much of the season. O’Brien has also struggled with injuries in recent years but his physicality in both attack and defence for Ireland is priceless. Heaslip meanwhile, a former Ireland captain, has bags of experience to go with his ability at the lineout. Ireland’s points will come from the boot of Jonathan Sexton and it’s crucial that their world class fly-half stays fit throughout if they are to challenge. Sexton and scrum-half Conor Murray are both excellent tactical kickers and Ireland will look to pressure their opponents into mistakes, with Rob Kearney another key man in that regard at full-back.
Profile: For so many years Ireland were the perennial underdogs in international rugby, boasting special talents but never able to deliver results. That has changed in recent times with three Six Nations titles in six years, including the 2009 Grand Slam, with the side suddenly having plenty of quality in depth behind the front-line internationals and a sense of structure and purpose under Joe Schmidt. Ireland are now strong in the scrum, outstanding at the breakdown at turning over possession, while their kicking game is second to none and has taken some prized scalps in recent months. When they do decide to give the ball some width, exciting backs such as Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo are all there to take their chances when they can. For that reason, Ireland are not just being talked about as possible semi-finalists at this year’s World Cup, but also as potential champions.
They are no longer the plucky underdogs. History has seen many great Irish players come and go, from Jack Kyle – who led Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 1948 – through to Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, O’Gara and of course O’Driscoll, who retired in 2014 but is still regarded as arguably the greatest centre of all time. Ireland now however have a great team, one packed with experience spearheaded by O’Connell. This feels like Ireland’s best chance at a Rugby World Cup and it will be fascinating to see how they get on.
Prospects in 2015: Ireland are certainly in contention to win the Rugby World Cup as the reigning Six Nations champions and top spot in Pool D is certainly achievable alongside France and Italy. From there, they will have to keep their composure, but they have huge potential and could go all the way.
19 Sep – 14:30 v Canada, Cardiff
27 Sep – 16:45 v Romania, Wembley Stadium (London)
4 Oct – 16:45 v Italy, Olympic Stadium (London)
11 Oct – 16:45 v France, Cardiff