Time to take Ireland seriously

Date published: March 9 2015

Ireland are genuine World Cup contenders – that was the message taken from their surgical demolition of England in Dublin last week.

What's interesting is that isn't a view solely held in Europe either. If those watching on from the SANZAR trio are starting to take notice of you, something has gone right.

Ireland didn't wipe England off the field with four or five tries but they made their visitors seem powerless with a simple yet constantly effective gameplan. They only won by ten points on paper, but it felt like 20.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton's kicking games, combined with the aerial abilities and chasing of their backs, now allow them to dominate possession and territory in a way that any side in the world will struggle to counter.

It's a set of tactics that fits in perfectly with the low-scoring knockout stages of most Rugby World Cup games, especially the final itself, with defence so often winning out against attack and when actual try-scoring chances are at a premium.

Rather than risking moving the ball out wide and putting themselves in danger of turnovers and counter attacks, Ireland are forcing their opponents to make errors instead through pressure either in open play or through ferocious counter-rucking and turnovers at the breakdown – Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and Paul O'Connell have been tireless in that respect.

That is what wins matches in the modern game, whether fans or coaches like it or not.

Their ten-game unbeaten streak includes the scalps of the Springboks, Wallabies and now England, who felt as though they had made a leap forward with 2014's win over Ireland at Twickenham but now still lack composure, clearly last Sunday in any case. 

Match the way Ireland played against England to autumnal conditions in the northern hemisphere and their chances of winning this year's tournament feel very real. Currently ranked third in the world, anything less than making the semi-finals will be a colossal failure.

What's important to remember is that while Joe Schmidt may have designed his side to use those kicking tactics against the big guns to great effect, Ireland still possess enough firepower to open a game up should they decide to. Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe are more than competent finishers, Bowe indeed is world class, with Kearney as well being a complete player.

The option to open up is there for when Ireland decide to go down that route if the time is right, as Bowe summed up nicely when talking to the Telegraph.

"I would love to be carrying the ball, scoring tries, making yards, line-breaks – that's the real enjoyment of the game. But if it comes to chasing kicks and putting teams under pressure, trying to force turnovers, then that's what I've got to do.

"I'm delighted that we have three wins from three in the campaign, but if the opportunity arose to sling the ball out wide and give myself a one-on-one or go for the corner, that would be a bit better again. When that time comes, I hope I'll be ready for it."

Self-sacrifice cannot be easy for a winger of all players but Bowe knows that Ireland are on the path to something bigger. Win the Six Nations/Grand Slam or not, they have already made a statement and got the All Blacks thinking about how to stop them.

New Zealand are so often celebrated for their attacking rugby that it's forgotten just how often they kick to win matches, because they rarely execute badly when putting boot to ball. In that respect they now have a rival in Ireland, with Murray and Sexton complimented by having three players with experience of playing full-back outside them in Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne and Kearney.

Call Ireland boring if you want, but they look on course for back-to-back Six Nations titles and now have a credible chance of challenging to win this year's RWC.

by Ben Coles