Ireland’s pursuit of elusive silverware a likely indicator of World Cup potential

This squad, despite its Twickenham setback, remains capable of beating Italy and France

Brian O’Driscoll is facing into the last two games of his stellar Test career. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Brian O’Driscoll is facing into the last two games of his stellar Test career. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Tue, Mar 4, 2014, 11:24

Right now the 2015 World Cup can wait. A tilt at the title beckons and, besides, winning a Six Nations championship, or two, would be an eminently beneficial means of preparing for the four-yearly global gathering in England. Ireland, especially, after just one title in 2009 since 1985, need a title.

Were Ireland to achieve this over the next fortnight, they’ll have to beat Italy and France which would be given further importance in the context of the next World Cup as, in what looks a relatively favourable draw, they are Ireland’s main group rivals. For Ireland to reach a first semi-final or more, winning the group looks imperative as it would also, most probably, mean avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

The desire for what would be an 11th championship crown is manifest among players, management and supporters, all the more so with Brian O’Driscoll facing into the last two games of his stellar Test career. It could be argued that his decision to play for one more year has delayed the time available for Joe Schmidt to find a successor with only about 13 Tests between now and the 2015 World Cup, yet no one wanted to see the great man bow out last season.


No obvious replacement

In any event, there is no ready made replacement to inherit that mantle as things stand.

Perhaps Luke Fitzgerald will be given another shot at the role, and with Casey Laulala moving on it would make sense if Keith Earls – O’Driscoll’s most regular deputy for Ireland – was given a run there next season. What Ulster do next with their number 13 jersey will also be highly relevant, with Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne (who becomes eligible for Ireland next season and when signed originally was identified as a possible long-term successor to O’Driscoll) potential candidates at 13 as well as Darren Cave.

The frontrow options having improved, Davin Toner’s emergence as a Test lock of considerable stature based on his performances against New Zealand and England has helped broaden options. And with the backrow well stocked, it would help Schmidt if there were available options at fullback. This could yet come in the shape of Payne or perhaps Simon Zebo.

As the stock of wings have been tested severely in this championship, arguably Schmidt’s other big concern will be developing an understudy to Johnny Sexton, all the more so as the outhalf will be playing in the Top 14 for another season. In this, Schmit’s hand could be forced this week should the Racing Metro linchpin be ruled out with his hand injury and, at the moment, Paddy Jackson is the understudy in waiting.

There will be further opportunities to rest Sexton and give Jackson and Ian Madigan game time in the two-Test tour to Argentina in June and perhaps in one or two of next November’s series. The elbow room may yet be greater in the 2015 Six Nations given the proximity of the World Cup. However, Ireland are not going to go to the next World Cup with an experienced pair of outhalves.

As an aside, the idea that Sexton might be bought out of his contract by the IRFU and released by Racing sounds appealing but is highly unlikely. It would seem to make little commercial sense for the IRFU to more than double an investment they felt was beyond them when Racing offered a reputed €60,000 per month.


Lucrative French contracts
French club rugby is big business now, with average salaries having increased from €900 per month in 1996 to €11,000 this year, according to La Dépêche newspaper yesterday

. So it would make equally less commercial sense for Racing to release a player they have identified as the best in his position in Europe as part of their ambitions to become Top 14 and European Cup contenders. Never mind the dangerous precedent they would be setting for themselves.

Despite last season’s revival when beating France and Ireland at home, Italian coach Jacques Brunel has sought to build for the World Cup by investing in Tommaso Allan at outhalf. There have been glimpses of his potential, but his lack of game time at Perpignan and inaccurate Six Nations goal-kicking have meant the investment has come at a cost.

Italy have played with a higher tempo when Tobias Botes and Orquera have been introduced off the bench after the hour, but Tioto Tibaldi has been recalled ahead of Botes this week partly because Brunel favours Italian-born players in close calls. Alessandro Zanni and Mauro Bergamasco have been ruled out, and Sergio Parisse is struggling with the back problem which has limited his training throughout the tournament, but the influential Andrea Masi is back.

Italy arrive at the Aviva after the crushing disappointment of a last-minute defeat at home to Scotland. But perhaps therein lies the rub, for the Azzurri are happiest when filling the role of underdogs; as they will be this week.

Events at Twickenham next Sunday when England host Wales will have a major bearing on the outcome of the title race.

A Welsh win would suit Ireland given the respective points difference.

As for what suits Ireland’s needs best when France travel to Murrayfield, who knows with the French a week out, much less a fortnight out? But a continuation of this regime and all their ongoing country-v-club battles through to the next World Cup may be no harm.
gthornley@irishtimes.com

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