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Ireland’s continuity and momentum give them favourites tag against New Zealand

James Ryan misses out due to injury but team to play Rugby World Cup clash against All Blacks is almost the same as during the summer

When Ireland, by some quirk in World Rugby’s points system, went to number one in the rankings just before the 2019 Rugby World Cup it simply felt, well, wrong. Even a tad embarrassing. And a stick with which to beat that faltering side over the head. And how they were beaten.

The ranking would have been a better fit at the end of 2018, which Ireland finished ranked second behind the All Blacks despite being the best side in the world that year. But they weren’t in 2019. Despite moving to the top of the rankings by completing a double over Wales with an assured 19-10 win at the Aviva on the eve of the World Cup, Ireland had lost to England and Wales in the Six Nations, and had been pulverised 57-15 in a Twickenham warm-up game a fortnight beforehand.

The loss to Japan duly knocked Ireland from their perch and, of course, the 46-14 quarter-final defeat by New Zealand duly followed.

But this is altogether different. Ireland have been atop the world ranking for over a year and have moved to within one game of equalling the all-time record of 18 Tests wins in a row achieved by New Zealand (August 2015 to October 2016) and England (October 2015 to March 2017).


Although, by coincidence, Ireland bookended their 2016-17 season by ending both runs, the idea of them one day attempting to equal the record seemed fanciful.

They’ve also backed up last year’s historic Series win in New Zealand with an unbeaten autumn, a Grand Slam and a perfect pool campaign here. As Andy Farrell said after unveiling his selection for Saturday night’s momentous quarter-final against New Zealand at the Stade de France, the mantle sits altogether more easily.

“I suppose an inferiority complex is what’s happened in the past in terms of getting to world number one and thinking that we’re going to fall off a cliff because this shouldn’t be happening to Ireland,” said Farrell, who stopped short of using the prefix ‘little old’.

“But what we’ve tried to do is throw ourselves into challenges and meet them head on and embrace that. We don’t want to be second best, we want to be first best. We also realise that people are chasing you down hard. You’ve seen with the All Blacks over the last 20 years; that’s why they’re so respected because it’s very hard to stay at the top. The guys that are the favourites are the ones I’ve always looked at throughout my career and envied really, because of how hard it is to do that.

“It’s the place we want to be. If you’re serious about getting better, being the team that you want to be, that’s the world that you’ve got to live in.”

Four years ago, the weight of Ireland’s World Cup history and that team’s faltering form probably contributed to the “performance anxiety” which David Nucifora identified in his review. Four years on, reflecting a head coach who radiates calmness and benefitting from the work of Gary Keegan, this squad hasn’t betrayed a scintilla of anxiety.

“It’s another big game in front of us,” reasoned Farrell in characteristic fashion of this quarter-final. “At this stage, it’s all about preparation and recovery and making sure there’s an ownership of the plan that you’re going to try to apply to the opposition at the weekend.

“We immerse ourselves with that, it’s the only way it should be. Of course, things start to creep in, but we’ve tools and experience to combat all that. The main part is to remember that we’re a bloody good team that play together and, when we do that, you’re not on your own are you? So (then) you can get away from those type of thoughts.”

Despite the presence of Joe Schmidt in the All Blacks camp, even bringing forward Ireland’s team announcement by 24 hours to three days before kick-off is not only at odds with his predecessor as head coach but betrays Farrell’s calmness and belief in his team. This tallies with Keith Earls’ message last Monday that this is a much different team from the one which Schmidt coached.

It is also, remarkably, almost the exact same Irish starting XV from the third Test in Wellington save for Iain Henderson retaining his place in the secondrow for his third quarter-final start instead of the injured James Ryan.

Ryan (wrist), Earls (hamstring) and Robbie Henshaw (hamstring) were all ruled out of consideration, but Farrell maintained they should be fit in a week’s time should Ireland advance to the semi-final. The 22-year-old Joe McCarthy, the youngest player in the squad, has been named on the bench, as has Jimmy O’Brien, the only player in the squad yet to feature at this World Cup.

This perhaps betrays ongoing concerns about Mack Hansen’s wellbeing, as he hasn’t trained this week due to the calf injury he suffered in last week’s win over Scotland, and O’Brien’s inclusion also removes the risk of Jamison Gibson-Park having to play on the wing.

Hand-in-hand with the momentum which comes from winning and topping their pool is the team’s 16th man in the stands, according to Farrell.

“With the support we’ve had so far, because of the games we’ve won, momentum and doing things together, we’re a little bit, as far as support’s concerned, the envy of all the other nations. We’re doing this together.

“I know we’ve been to this stadium twice and it’s been unbelievable. Is momentum part of that? I think so, a little bit. We know they’re going to turn up in their droves again and not just that, the French people, the local people that are coming and singing their national anthem, we feel like they’re part of that occasion, enjoying that as well.

“Is momentum, continuity of selection and performance all part of that pot? It probably is.”

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)(captain), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Ronan Kelleher (Leinster) Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Jack Crowley (Munster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times