Ireland have greatest chance to break Rugby World Cup curse but questions remain
Ireland will hope to end their World Cup woe in France
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Sporting curses are made to be broken. The Boston Red Sox broke the ‘curse of the Bambino’ in 2004 and the Chicago Cubs ended ‘the curse of the Billy Goat’ in 2016. Although they did take 86 and 108 years respectively.
And actually, despite reaching 11 GAA Football All-Ireland finals since they were put under the ‘curse of ‘51’, Mayo are still yet to reclaim the Sam Maguire Cup. In retrospect, maybe Ireland shouldn’t look too closely at other hexes ahead of this Rugby World Cup.
The fact that Ireland have never won a World Cup knockout match in their entire history – exiting at the quarter-final stage in seven of the nine editions, as well as in the quarter-final play-offs on one occasion (the 1999 World Cup was weird…) – is one of the most incredible hoodoos in sport.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Australia (twice), France (twice), Argentina (twice), Wales or New Zealand standing in their way, the Irish simply cannot make it to the promised land of a semi-final. But surely this time is different? Surely…?
This is almost unequivocally the greatest Ireland side of all-time. They’ve already made history by securing a first-ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand before going on to inflict a first home Test series defeat on their hosts since 1994, reached No 1 in the world rankings for the first time and they enter this tournament on the back of a Six Nations grand slam earlier in the year.
Ireland secured a Six Nations grand slam earlier this year
Andy Farrell has created an efficient, ruthless machine in attack and a disciplined, defiant unit in defence that has beaten every one of the World Cup contenders at some point during this four-year cycle.
Yet until they get over that quarter-final hump and finally smash through the psychological barrier, questions will remain. On paper, they’re more than good enough to win the whole tournament, let alone get a knockout game victory, but World Cups aren’t played on paper and frankly, the draw has been hugely unkind to them.
Put into Pool B with fellow top-five sides South Africa and Scotland, there’s a genuine chance Ireland could crash out in the group stage and if they do emerge, either the All Blacks or France on French soil await in the quarter-finals.
Even the fixture order has made things harder as, while Romania and Tonga clashes give them a chance to bed into the tournament, then beating the Springboks, Scotland and France/New Zealand in three consecutive weeks to reach a semi-final will be a monumental physical ask. Farrell sides are always well-conditioned and they’ll need to be, given how battered and bruised they’ll inevitably be after that run.
Keeping Johnny Sexton, 38 years old but still the team’s fly half lynchpin, fit will be vital to their chances. Sexton will retire after the World Cup as perhaps Irish rugby’s greatest-ever servant and if anyone deserves a deep run at the tournament, it’s him.
The fitness of Johnny Sexton holds the key for Ireland
Sexton’s injury and concussion history is well known and the first two group games should give him a chance to knock off any ring rust – having not played for six months thanks to a groin injury and a ban for berating match officials after Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup final defeat.
He’s never taken long to get back up to speed in the past, so protecting him for the bigger challenges to come, where possible, may be the order of the day. Ross Byrne coped admirably when deputising during the Six Nations and Jack Crowley has impressed at club level but neither are in the same league as the ultimate fly half orchestrator Sexton. Will Johnny’s last stand end in glory or heartbreak?
This is a world-class Ireland squad who have become used to relentlessly winning at both club and international level. The opportunity to break the World Cup quarter-final curse has never been greater but curses can be funny things.
Coach: Andy Farrell
Captain: Johnny Sexton
Key Player: Caelan Doris – As detailed above, the drop-off at fly half after Johnny Sexton is stark but in the interest of giving someone else a nod, Caelan Doris is probably the best of Ireland’s hugely-talented back row. That’s a big statement bearing in mind reigning World Rugby Player of the Year Josh van der Flier, the relentless Jack Conan and the ageless Peter O’Mahony also play there but Doris’ all-round game is as good as any back row in the world. His footwork, acceleration and dynamism are exceptional and unlock Ireland’s attack.
Rising star: Mack Hansen – Lock Joe McCarthy has a bright future and either of hooker pair Dan Sheehan or Ronan Kelleher would also fit here but Mack Hansen is still just 25 years old and only made his international debut last year, even if he already feels like a staple. The Australia-born winger is hugely explosive in attack, a consummate finisher and the 2022 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year nominee can really announce himself as a world-class player in France, although an unexplained absence from the matchday 23 for Ireland’s opening match poses questions.
Big question: Can the best Ireland team in history finally get over their Rugby World Cup knockout mental block?
Forwards: Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Jeremy Loughman, Tom O’Toole; Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Rob Herring; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Joe McCarthy, Ryan Baird; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, Jack Conan
Backs: Jamison Gibson-Park, Conor Murray, Craig Casey; Johnny Sexton, Ross Byrne, Jack Crowley; Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Stuart McCloskey; James Lowe, Mack Hansen, Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Keith Earls
Saturday 9 September: Ireland vs Romania, Pool B (Bordeaux, 1.30pm)
Saturday 16 September: Ireland vs Tonga, Pool B (Nantes, 7pm)
Saturday 23 September: South Africa vs Ireland, Pool B (Paris, 7pm)
Saturday 7 October: Ireland vs Scotland, Pool B (Paris, 7pm)
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