RWC: 5 Areas Ireland must work on

Date published: May 27 2015

With Ireland kicking off their pre-World Cup campaign against the Barbarians on Thursday we take a look at key areas for improvement.

Ireland may be entering the Rugby World Cup as seemingly the strongest side in the Northern Hemisphere having won back-to-back Six Nations' titles, but they are still not the finished article.

Although the Irish are ranked third in the world, they have never got beyond the quarter-finals. Drawn in Pool D alongside France, Italy, Canada and Romania, Joe Schmidt's team are expected to make the knockout phase of the competition and reach the semi-finals for the first time in England this year.

Here are five pressing concerns which Ireland will need to address in order to achieve that goal…

Keeping Jonny Sexton Fit
In Jonny Sexton, Ireland have one of the best number 10s in world rugby. However, the challenge will be to keep him fit and injury-free as he will be targeted by opponents as one of the main threats posed by this Irish team. His game management and ability to create openings make him such an important player. Ireland are simply not the same without him. For instance, when he came off against England in March they struggled to maintain their hold on the game thereafter. If Sexton is firing, Ireland have every chance of going far in the Rugby World Cup.

Replacement fly-half
One area Ireland lack clarity in for England 2015 is who will be Sexton's back-up. Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson are all candidates, but none of them are standout choices. Schmidt appears to favour Madigan for his utility, however he opted for Keatley in the Six Nations' opener against Italy and in the 2014 edition, Jackson was his preferred choice as deputy. With team benches and squad strength in depth being so important at the tournament, Ireland will need a definite reserve at fly-half to call upon and step up in Sexton's place.

Plan B
In the Six Nations' matches against Italy and Wales earlier this year, Ireland stuggled to breakdown doggid, resolute defences and seemed to have no 'Plan B' to unlock them. Against Italy, the Irish had to wait until late before they finally cracked a tired Italian rearguard. But more worryingly in Wales, they repeatedly failed to capitalise on their territorial dominance and were predictable in their attacks. Ireland will need to have a few surprises up their sleeves to turn games, such as taking drop-goal opportunities or a 15-man lineout should another score or bust situation against Wales occur in England.

Sexton Kicking Under Pressure
With ball in hand he is devastating, but when it comes to pressure kicks he has a tendancy to buckle. Take the agonising losses to New Zealand in 2012 and 2013, for example, both times Sexton squandered kickable penalties to seal the contests before The All Blacks struck decisive late blows. More recently in their final Six Nations' games against France in 2014 and Scotland in March, his goal-kicking looked to have eluded him with several uncharacteristic misses before he finally delivered. In England he will need to keep his composure in front of goal if Ireland are to advance.

Seeing Games Out
Apart from the Scotland and Wales' matches, Ireland finished on the back foot in most of their Six Nations' tussles this year. In fact, they were lucky not to concede late tries against Italy, France and England which could have swung the Six Nations' crown away from the Irish. While Ireland did pull through in the end and won those encounters, they will need to work on seeing games out as they may not be so fortunate at a Rugby World Cup where one-score games or denying another team a losing bonus point may be pivotal to progressing.

By Aron Hegarty