Ireland’s four warm up matches thus far have been particularly unedifying. Coach Declan Kidney has tinkered with his starting lineup, the players have shown plenty of early-season rust, and the outcome has been four losses out of four. France coach Marc Lievremont even went so far as to wish they had provided a sterner test. However, third place in the six nations, including toppling eventual champions England, shows what Ireland are capable of and they will be hoping to mount a stronger challenge in New Zealand.
Ireland have a solid front row, locks with plenty of experience and class, and a strong back row. The return to fitness of Stephen Ferris after nine months out of the international game is crucial, but equally so could prove the loss of first choice fetcher David Wallace, cruelly ruled out after injuring his knee in Ireland’s final warm up against England.
The half back Tomas O’Leary, who was Ireland’s starter in the six nations tournament when fit, has missed the squad on form, so the three selected half backs will be battling to make the starting team sheet. Jonathan Sexton has pushed Ronan O’Gara out of the starting lineup with a strong all-round game, but the experienced fly half can bring a calm head off the bench to world cup matches, where the pressure will be intense.
The midfield of D’Arcy and that man O’Driscoll has plenty of class but not a lot of recent form; expect them to raise their game as the pressure rises though. Outside, fullback Rob Kearney is also coming back from a long injury lay-off, and winger Andrew Trimble has been in fine form during the warm ups.
Ireland have a relatively difficult draw – their group includes world no. 2 Australia, as well as perennial 6 nations wooden-spooners Italy. If Ireland beat Italy but lose to Australia and finish second in their group, they can expect a quarter final against a tough Springbok side. However, if Ireland can turn their form around enough to topple Australia in their second group match, they could face Wales (or Fiji or Samoa) in the quarter finals. Ireland have never reached a world cup semifinal but with their experienced squad, if they make it that far in 2011, they will fancy their chances of going further.
Props: Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Tony Buckley, Tom Court
Hookers: Rory Best, Jerry Flannery, Sean Cronin
Locks: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan
Flankers: Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings
No. 8s: Jamie Heaslip, Denis Leamy
Halfbacks: Eion Reddan, Isaac Boss, Conor Murray
Flyhalves: Jonathan Sexton, Ronan O’Gara
Centres: Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll (C), Keith Earls, Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden
Outside backs: Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy
2011 results (most recent first): L, L, L, W, L, W, L, W. 3rd place in the 6N.
Tries in 2011: 10 tries in 5 matches in the 6 Nations. 3 tries in 4 Rugby World Cup warm up matches (all in one match against France).
Main goal kickers: Sexton, O’Gara.