Rugby World Cup 2019: Ireland on track to be big in Japan
With a settled team and squad, Schmidt’s men are justifiable second favourites one year out
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are second favourites a year out from the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Like a US presidential election when the campaigning starts pretty much as soon as the previous winner is inaugurated, the countdown toward the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan has been ongoing for some time. But with the opening game on September 20th - exactly a year from next Thursday - it is starting to come more sharply into focus.
For the next 12 months, everything that happens in the test environment will be viewed within the prism of the ninth World Cup.
The IRFU recently confirmed their warm-up fixtures, so ensuring Joe Schmidt, his staff and squad have the maximum possible preparation between now and their pivotal opening Pool A game against Scotland in the International Stadium in Yokohama on September 22nd - exactly a year from next Saturday. In the meantime, World Rugby are putting the next tranche of tickets on sale from Wednesday.
A year out, Ireland have never seemed in better shape. In this World Cup cycle they have scaled new heights by removing the biggest monkey from their collective backs by beating the All Blacks for the first time ever, claiming the Grand Slam, and winning 14 of their last 15 matches to earn an unprecedented year-end world ranking of number two. Yikes.
Accordingly, at the moment, they are clear second favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis at 9-2 (yikes again!), albeit New Zealand are hot favourites to win a third in a row at 10-11, odds which actually seem quite generous.
A team and squad need to have proven ability, a degree of maturity and established playing personnel. Boring predictability, not least when it comes to second-guessing a 31-man World Cup squad, or a possible starting XV for the opening match, is a good sign. As a rule, the more settled a team is the better.
Taking the previous winners as a yardstick, it’s pretty much been ever thus. Remarkably, of the England XV that started the 2003 World Cup final against Australia in Sydney in November, 13 had started their 42-6 Grand Slam-clinching win over Ireland in Lansdowne Road the preceding March. Furthermore, 17 of the respective 22-man squads were the same.
Similarly, the core of Jake White’s 2007 World Cup winners had been in situ for his four-year cycle in charge of South Africa. Likewise the All Blacks champions of both 2011, under Graham Henry, and 2015 under Steve Hansen.
When the All Blacks lost the deciding match of a truncated 2015 Rugby Championship in Sydney to Australia in August 2015 by 27-19, 12 of the World Cup final XV and 17 of the 23-man squad pitched up for the final in Twickenham at the end of October. Interestingly, although Michael Cheika was new in the job, he had nailed his colours to the mast, and 12 of their starting team in Sydney lined up for the kick-off in Twickenham less than three months later - as would 20 of their 23-man squad.
Of the All Blacks team that avenged that Sydney defeat just a week later in Eden Park, by 41-13, Hansen had promoted Ma’a Nonu and Sam Whitelock (while also sticking with Dan Carter despite calls for his omission), so meaning 14 of their XV were in their side for the final.
Of course, Ireland took a very settled team to the 2007 World Cup and a fat lot of good it did them. But they were more of a team than a squad, and amid the wildest of Irish rumour mills - the 15 “Untouchables” who were excused duty from the summer tour of Argentina barely showed up in Bordeaux, with the honourable exception of Brian O’Driscoll.
That team were nearly all in their mid to late 20s, with 50-plus caps, and would go on to win the Grand Slam in 2009, but after storming through the 2011 pool stages with four wins from four - including a seismic win over the Wallabies - the quarter-final defeat to Wales proved another anti-climax.
So was that now customary exit point in 2015 - all the more so after back-to-back Six Nations titles. But there were mitigating circumstances, not least the toll from that brutal pool decider against France in Cardiff, which left Ireland without Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and the suspended Seán O’Brien, as well as the previously injured Jared Payne.
It’s worth repeating, but even the vintage All Black winners might have struggled against South Africa in the semi-finals, or Australia in the final, without a comparative quintet - say Carter, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Brodie Retallick and Conrad Smith.
No defeat in his coaching career has rankled more with Joe Schmidt than that one. For him, the countdown to the 2019 World Cup began two summers ago when he turned down the opportunity to work with the Lions on their tour of New Zealand because he viewed the Irish tour to Japan (two tests) and the US (one test) that same month as crucial in the build-up to 2019.
That tour/reconnaissance mission should really stand to the coaches, management and players who were not involved in the Lions tour and will now return to Japan. They will have learned a lot, not least in what to expect culturally and how to manage the players’ downtime.
Ireland’s itinerary also looks more promising than was the case in 2015, when they (and France) paid a heavy price for having their group shootout at the end of the pool stages, and thus a week before their respective quarter-finals against Argentina and New Zealand. By comparison, Argentina and New Zealand had faced off on the opening weekend, and thereafter picked and chose the matches for their leading men. A week prior to the quarter-finals, they had polished off Namibia (64-19) and Tonga (47-0).
Above all, Schmidt is determined to make sure that Ireland have a squad better able to cope with injuries. To that end the US/Japanese tour also saw him blood players such as James Ryan, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter, who along with Jordan Larmour would become part of the Grand Slam winning squad.
With Simon Zebo having moved to France, Larmour - and perhaps Ulster’s new recruit Will Addison - are further options, along with Andrew Conway, for the back three, with Rob Kearney still looking nailed on for the starting fullback jersey. He may not have the X-factor or counter-attacking ability of Zebo and Larmour, but he is the only player who has started all 10 of Ireland’s 2009 and 2017 Grand Slam games, and all 20 games of the four Six Nations title wins in the last decade.
Larmour and Conway could also be wing options along with “old man” Keith Earls - understandably a Schmidt favourite - and Jacob Stockdale.
Choosing two from Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the midfield looks well nigh impossible, and may depend on fitness and form, while there are other options to look at in the interim - be it Chris Farrell, Sam Arnold or Tom Farrell.
Halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are world class and integral to Ireland’s wellbeing. There’s no dressing that up. But at least the options have been swelled by the movement between provinces - specifically Joey Carbery to Munster and John Cooney to Ulster. Almost at a stroke, the provinces are fielding Irish qualified halfbacks every week.
Schmidt had a 17-14 forwards/backs split in the 31-man squad for the last World Cup, and a 18-14 split for the squad which toured Australia, which also looked like something of a dry run for the next World Cup.
To achieve the former, he took only five halfbacks to the 2015 World Cup, and Cooney’s versatility and goal-kicking could strengthen his case, although at 27 Schmidt needs to see more of him. Kieran Marmion still appears to be the back-up to Murray, while Carbery is Sexton’s.
The frontrow options now look very settled, albeit Niall Scannell’s form on the summer tour to Australia may well have raised him above Seán Cronin in the pecking order. Questions have also emerged about Rory Best’s ongoing place in the team, but he remains highly valued.
Tadhg Beirne will surely emerge as one of the locks/flankers in the squad, with James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Devin Toner - the most capped player under Schmidt’s watch and with proven durability over 80 minutes - not going away anytime soon.
The backrow remains as uber-competitive as ever, with scope for a Max Deegan or Caelan Doris to emerge yet. But all things being equal, if Seán O’Brien returns and is at his best, that adds another name to Schmidt’s list of truly world-class options.
Ultimately, at least 10 and probably more of the team which clinched the Slam against England last March should pitch up for that pivotal opener against Scotland. And the core of the squad from Australia last June should be in situ for Japan.
Boringly and healthily predictable.
Possible team (v Scotland in World Cup Pool A opener)
Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jordan Larmour; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander. Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne, Kieran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jacob Stockdale.
Ireland’s matches between now and the 2019 World Cup
Sat Nov 3rd: Ireland v Italy, Soldier Field, Chicago (3pm local time/9pm Irish).
Sat Nov 10th: Ireland v Argentina, Aviva Stadium (6.30pm).
Sat Nov 17th: Ireland v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium (7pm).
Sat Nov 24th: Ireland v USA, Aviva Stadium (6.30pm).
2019 Six Nations
Sat Feb 2nd: Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium (4.45pm).
Sat Nov 9th: Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield (2.15pm).
Sun Feb 24th: Italy v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico (4pm local time/3pm Irish).
Sun March 10th: Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium (3pm).
Sat March 16th: Wales v Ireland, Principality Stadium (2.45pm).
World Cup warm-ups
Sat Aug 10th: Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium.
Sat Aug 24th: England v Ireland, Twickenham.
Sat Aug 31st: Wales v Ireland, Principality Stadium.
Sat Sept 7th: Ireland v Wales, Aviva Stadium.