5 Jan 2019

Ireland to win Rugby World Cup? Pull the other one

10:22 am on 5 January 2019

The temptation was to laugh - Ireland, so the experts would have us believe, are odds on to win this year's Rugby World Cup.

Ireland rugby captain Rory Best

Ireland captain Rory Best was all smiles following his side's win over the All Blacks in 2018, but will he be smiling in Japan in nine months time? Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Few, if any, round-ups of the rugby year were complete without the breathless assertion that New Zealand are a fading giant and Ireland's 16-9 win over them in Dublin two months ago represented a change to the established world order.

Ireland are poised to be crowned 2019 Rugby World Cup champions come November, apparently. Heck, even Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale said "I don't think there's the fear of New Zealand like before'' and he ought to know. At 22 years-old and with precisely one clash with the All Blacks under his belt, Stockdale's obviously in a position of some authority here.

Again, the temptation - at least very briefly - was to laugh. On second thought, though, you wondered how anyone could write or suggest such tripe with a straight face.

Ireland, boring, boring Ireland, are one of the world rugby's greatest underachievers. Put them in a position of even remote favouritism and they fold.

Seven times they've been eliminated from Rugby World Cups at the quarterfinal stage. The only time they managed different was 2007, when they weren't good enough to even emerge from their pool.

The All Blacks are hardly infallible. Partly because of the teams coach Steve Hansen is picking. They've featured a few plodders, who just bring them back to Ireland and the rest of the chasing pack.

The All Blacks' point of difference has often been Polynesian players. It's why Ireland drafted in New Zealander Bundee Aki for instance and England Ben Te'o. Other Pacific Islanders such as Mako and Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi have been regulars for England when fit. Australia are picking athletes and ball runners galore, few of whom actually have a handle on rugby's fundamentals.

Hansen's response has been to pick players such as Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty or make wings out of Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett. It's an interesting tactic, but one based on having multi-skilled players who can execute under pressure and fatigue and in potentially high temperatures.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had more losses than he would've liked in 2018 - but is it all part of the bigger picture? Photo: Photosport

Good luck to Ireland. Halfback Conor Murray and first five-eighth Johnny Sexton are good players. Tadhg Furlong is a superb tighthead prop and loose forwards Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony are excellent operators too.

But lets not forget what hard work they made of beating Australia in last June's three-test series or the conditions that will confront them in Japan for the world cup.

Revenue was no doubt an important factor in the All Blacks taking their third 2018 Bledisloe Cup clash with Australia to Yokohama, before playing Japan in Tokyo. The other, more practical purpose, was experiencing the hard, fast tracks and plus-20 degree temperatures that are a feature of October and November in Japan.

Yes, Ireland beat New Zealand 40-29 in Chicago back in 2016, in fine conditions and on a firm playing surface. But that was a rather second-string All Blacks side who were at the end of an 18-game winning streak and had, for some reason, spent the week celebrating the Cubs' first Major League Baseball title in 108 years.

Ireland played a lot of attractive rugby that day, but nothing they've done against the All Blacks since suggests a repeat is on the cards. In fact, away from the advantage of a Dublin winter, you wonder just how effective they'll be in Japan.

No-one pretends Ireland are a poor side and didn't thoroughly deserve to beat New Zealand last November. But to assume that will automatically translate into world cup success in Japan is an insult to your average rugby fan's intelligence.