Matt Williams: Lack of any real plan could kill Ireland’s 2023 World Cup hopes

Short-sighted strategy leaves Andy Farrell’s side trailing in wake of well-prepared rivals

“This is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard IRFU airlines, Flight RWC 2023. After take-off, I will drag this old crate up to an altitude high enough for you to look down upon the Irish preparations for the next World Cup.

“As this flight is channelling the spirit of the original World Cup in 1987, the responsible service of alcohol has been suspended, smoking is permitted, the lavatories are a free for all and the IRFU are footing the bill.”

This news is greeted with raucous cheers from the Irish supporters in the cabin.

"So ready your good selves as we ascend far above the weekly trivia, like whether an Australian or a Kiwi should play on the left wing for Ireland, and get ready to grab a glimpse of Ireland's preparations for France 2023.

“To Michael in the galley. Send up a couple of cheeky G&Ts to the cockpit when you’re ready. Ta.”

Sometime later, through the cigarette smoke haze and the barroom like hum in the cabin, the captain again comes over the intercom.

"If you glance out of your portside window, you can see 2023 World Cup, looming large on the horizon. I can hear you say, 'Geez, that's much closer than I realised.' Well, that's a typical Irish response. On September 9th next year Ireland will run out in Bordeaux for their first World Cup match."

The captain continues as the cabin party changes up a gear.

"As we gain altitude your ears may pop as you see that Ireland only have around 16 matches left before the opener in Bordeaux. That is not many. A glance out of the starboard window, that's the right side for all you non-aeronautical muppets, and Ireland's decisive pool match against South Africa, two weeks later in Paris, is in full view. This game may determine whether Ireland are dumped out at the quarter-final stage for the 10th consecutive World Cup.

Attacking plan

“As we ponder that fact - and believe me I share your pain - we are able to view some of the great challenges for Ireland next year. On the positive side, we can all see that Ireland have made many excellent changes. There is an exciting new attacking plan, the selection policy is spot on and there has been a wonderful rethinking of the teams kicking strategy . . .”

At this, an enormous cheer emanates from the cabin. Spontaneously, the now well lubricated Irish supporters begin to sing, to the tune of Guantanamera.

“No more box kicks,

We want no more box kicks,

No more boooxxx kiiccks

We want no more booxxx kiiccks…”

Hearing the singing through the cockpit security door the captain, sipping on his gin and tonic, becomes emboldened.

"To quote president John F Kennedy, 'the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining'."

At this exact point, the well-meaning captain lost the interest of every single passenger.

Despite this, gin in hand, the skipper is warming to his subject. “Right now the sun is shining on Irish rugby, so now is the time to fix Ireland’s decades-long problem of player depth in key positions. Especially tighthead prop, outhalf and fullback.”

“What happens,” he hypothesises, “if Tadgh Furlong gets injured in the week before the decisive pool match against South Africa?”

An old prop sitting in seat 46 F, deep into lager number four, only half hearing the captain jumps to his feet screaming. “Did he just say Furlong was injured? We’re doomed. Without Furlong the Italians will kill us. That boy can do anything. I bet he drives the team bus into Lansdowne Road.”

With much shoulder patting and comforting words, the ancient prop almost regains his seat, before getting a second wind. “We need that Furlong boy. I hope he gets better quick because he plays just like me. All that passing and running . . .” His former teammates roll their eyes at their grizzled friend, whose rugby career consisted of walking from scrum to scrum and falling over.

The captain drones on like an economics professor to a half empty lecture hall.

“South Africa have two enormous, highly skilled front rows in their matchday 23. Their tactics, which have won three World Cups, will not change. The Boks will select a giant scrummaging and mauling pack, with six forwards on the bench and a high quality goal kicker and that’s all she wrote.”

Bad memory

“Remember what the Boks scrum did to the English props in the 2019 final?” The old prop in 46 F felt a guilty shiver go down his spine. That World Cup final was the only time in his life he had felt sorry for an English front row. It was a bad memory.

"Finlay Bealham has done exceptionally well from the bench, but since 2016 his only starts as a tighthead have been against Canada, Japan and the USA. The next number three is Tim O'Toole, who has only two caps against Japan and the USA. Both of these tightheads desperately need game time against tier one teams or South Africa will eat them."

Card games are now being played by passengers throughout the cabin.

"Against France," the captain drawled, "Joey Carbery was brave. But how can anyone expect him to replace the GOAT, Johnny Sexton? Poor Joey's only other starts against tier one nations have been against Australia in 2017 and Argentina last November.

"Joey needs far more starts against big teams. As does Jack Carty if he is to be Joey's backup. Remember New Zealand 2011? The Kiwis won the final with outhalf number three."

Most of the cabin is either now either sound asleep or watching reruns of Game of Thrones, trying to figure out why a smart guy like Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, had no real succession plan in place before he had his melon lopped off.

As the pilot begins sipping on his third gin and tonic, his diatribe reaches a fever pitch.

"Answer me this!" He roared so loudly that he woke a flight attendant who was sneaking a sleep in a locked toilet. "Who in God's name is Hugo Keenan's back up? Mike Lowry is an excellent young player but he has not even been capped. Zero game time! Ask yourself, what happens if Keenan is out?

"Making a few changes for the Italy match is a pittance. In the world rankings Italy are 14th. All of the key backup players need match time against tier one nations or our World Cup may be doomed."

Backup players

At this point, the co-pilot secretly turned off his boss’s microphone. He knew that no one was listening. The Irish passengers on Flight RWC 2023 were far too infatuated with beating Italy tomorrow, then the old enemy at Twickenham, followed by the Scots at home. All three matches are so very winnable that nobody is thinking of giving game time to key backup players, because, heaven forbid, Ireland might lose a match. No-one is at all interested in preparing for the next World Cup.

That is if you don't include France, who have been planning for the 2023 World Cup for more than seven years. Fabien Galthié took his second and third choice team to Australia last summer to give them big match experience. New Zealand always plan ahead. Look at their depth chart at 3, 10 and 15. The Boks and the Wallabies are fixated on the World Cup cycle, as are Eddie Jones and England, but apart from them, no-one is really planning for France 2023 . . . are they?

The pilot of Flight RWC 2023 is now sound asleep with his chin resting on his chest. Trying to not wake his boss, the co-pilot whispers into the microphone: “Passengers, kindly finish your drinks and cigarettes. Clip your tray tables, bring your seats upright and fasten your seat belts. The toilets and opportunities to give players valuable game time are now closed. Shortly we will be landing into the reality of RWC 2023, much sooner than you all expected.”