Ireland under pressure to perform
Hugh Farrelly
September 2, 2011

It was only a couple of weeks ago that we were writing how Ireland coach Declan Kidney would be happy with how his Rugby World Cup preparations were going. Scratch that.

Since that decent Irish performance in Bordeaux in the second of their four warm-up internationals, Kidney's World Cup preparations have taken on a distinct pear shape and when the squad touched down in New Zealand this week, the sense of relief at leaving behind a torrid August and a barrage of criticism back home was palpable.

The home defeats to France and England carried very few positives and a host of negatives. Chief among those were the injuries to Felix Jones and David Wallace and, while Geordan Murphy is a quality replacement for Jones at fullback, Wallace's knee injury leaves Ireland with a problem at openside flanker.

Shane Jennings was the obvious replacement, and is a specialist 7, but has yet to prove he can bring his excellent Leinster form onto the international stage. Sean O'Brien can slot in there but that would take him away from his most effective position of blindside - O'Brien's game is all about big hits and big runs, asking him to scavenge at the base of rucks reduces that impact.

However, warm-up troubles aside, Ireland are happily encamped in Queenstown and, though there are still injury issues surrounding late arrivals Cian Healy and Gordon D'Arcy and match-readiness doubts over several players, including captain Brian O'Driscoll, Kidney and company are heading into the tournament with a positive attitude.

The comparisons with the lead-in to the disastrous 2007 campaign have been flying around the Irish media with accompanying prognostications of impending doom. However, as Kidney pointed out this week, a crucial difference is that, while the warm-up matches last time were against Scotland, Italy and Bayonne, there was a deliberate decision this time around to go up against World Cup heavyweights France and England and the Ireland coach is convinced this will stand to the players. So, what can we expect from Ireland at this World Cup? Let's break it down.

"If Ireland can rediscover the form they displayed when dismantling England's Grand Slam aspirations last March, then they are definitely capable of reaching the semi-finals for the first time."

The history
Disastrous. Ireland have scooped a Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns and a host of European and Celtic League titles since 1999 but have never managed to crack the World Cup. Their best performance was in 1991 when they came agonisingly close to upsetting eventual champions Australia in Lansdowne Road but since 1987, Ireland's World Cup efforts have been characterised by failure.

Indeed, close perusal of their record reveals only two meaningful victories in 24 years - dogfights in the pool stages against Wales in 1995 and Argentina in 2003.

The hopes
If Ireland can rediscover the form they displayed when dismantling England's Grand Slam aspirations last March, then they are definitely capable of reaching the semi-finals for the first time. In Kidney, they have a coach whose career has been on a steady upward curve to this point and a man whose management skills come to the fore in intense tournament environments. The core of the side could be participating in their final World Cup and the likes of O'Driscoll, Jerry Flannery, Paul O'Connell, Gordon D'Arcy and Ronan O'Gara will not want to leave it behind them. It would be a major surprise if they did not reach the quarter-finals and then it is over to Kidney to take Ireland where they have never been before.

The fears
That England Six Nations win aside, Ireland have been struggling to find their best form for more than a year. Confidence was an unwelcome issue throughout last November's internationals and the first four rounds of the Six Nations and reared its head again in August. Ireland need to hit the ground running against the USA for a repeat of the non-performances against Namibia and Georgia in 2007 would be hard to recover from. Injuries are the other big worry, Ireland are not France and cannot afford to lose key men such as O'Driscoll, O'Connell, Heaslip or O'Brien. Furthermore, if anything befalls Ireland's starting props Cian Healy and Mike Ross, the scrum immediately becomes an issue.

Key matches
Australia in the second fixture is the big one. Ireland's record against Australia in the last 10 years includes two wins and a draw and they do not have a mental block with the Wallabies in the way they have with the All Blacks. Win and the enticing possibility of a quarter-final showdown with Wales is on the cards. Lose, and it is a likely last eight assignment against the defending champion Springboks, assuming Ireland can get over their other crucial pool match against the Italians. Ireland have not lost to Italy since the Six Nations was formed in 2000. Nick Mallett's side have targeted the final pool clash against the Irish as their World Cup be-all/end-all and they will take heart from their victory over France in the spring. It promises to be a proper arm wrestle but one Ireland should win if they can provide a forward platform against the meaty Italian pack.

Key man
Mike Ross. Though his call-up came three months too late, Ross has nailed down the No 3 jersey since he was brought in for the Six Nations this year. His scrummaging power provides the Irish with their strongest platform since the days of Des Fitzgerald and Ross has to stay fit as major concerns remain around the hugely talented but frustratingly inconsistent back-up, Tony Buckley - especially at scrum time.

The bolter
Fergus McFadden. Conor Murray has been getting all the attention and could force his way into the match-day squad as back-up to scrum-half Eoin Reddan but, with injury doubts surrounding D'Arcy, McFadden has real designs on the No.12 jersey and the ability and attitude to excel wearing it.

The absentee
Luke Fitzgerald. Should be here, carrying Paddy Wallace as an emergency out-half was not essential.

The lead-in has been horrendous but Kidney and his management team can get to work now and that elusive semi-final is still on the cards. Beating the uber-confident Wallabies may be too much of an ask second game out but it is hard to see Ireland coming unstuck against the Italians and going in to a quarter-final as raging underdogs against the champions is just the sort of challenge Kidney relishes.

Hugh Farrelly's Ireland XV: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble; Ronan O'Gara, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Jerry Flannery, Mike Ross; Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell; Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Jamie

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Hugh Farrelly is the rugby correspondent for the Irish Independent

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