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Ireland Rugby World Cup preview: England has opened major cracks twice this year

Ireland Rugby World Cup preview: England has opened big cracks twice this year … but if Joe Schmidt drops the partnership with Johnny Sexton-Conor Murray, they still have a shot at glory in Japan

  • Ireland is next to Pool A, Scotland, Japan, Samoa and Russia
  • Joe Schmidt’s side won Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018 before beating All Blacks
  • But they’ve had a dip this year after two crushing defeats from England
  • Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray remain the best half-back clutch in the world

Joe Schmidt led Ireland to dizzying heights in 2018. A year that started with a stunning Six Nations Grand Slam thanks to Johnny Sexton’s last sighing goal in Paris that turned out to be the catalyst for a clean sweep culminating in a 24-15 victory over England in their own backyard in Twickenham.

Leinster – bulk suppliers to the national business – would close the season as Pro14 and European Champion for good measure. The good times continued into the summer when Schmidt took his team Down Under for a series of three tests against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies. Ireland would win a hard-fought series 2-1, a first series win on Australian soil since 1979.

The hype started to build around this Irish team. That excitement became full hysteria in November when the All Blacks were defeated in Dublin. This team was declared World Cup contenders. They had the coach, the players and the confidence to achieve great things in Japan.

Jacob Stockdale will score while Ireland defeated New Zealand in November 2018

Jacob Stockdale will score while Ireland defeated New Zealand in November 2018

POOL A LUMINAIRES

Scotland, September 22, 8:45 AM

Japan, Sept. 28, 8:15 a.m.

Russia, October 3, 11.15 a.m.

Samoa, October 12, 11.45 a.m.

Ireland’s record in the global showpiece’s 32 history is grim. An Irish game has never progressed past the quarterfinals and on two occasions – in 1999 and 2007 – it has not come to that.

But this Irish squad looked a very different proposition and was ready to break through that glass ceiling and reach a first-ever World Cup semifinal, and possibly more.

Fast forward six months and the landscape now looks very, very different.

Ireland has apparently been in free fall since the February 2 events at Aviva Stadium. It was the opening weekend of the Six Nations and Eddie Jones had brought an English squad across the water on a revenge mission. Owen Farrell and Co were forced to watch as Rory Best and his victorious squad paraded around Twickenham as Grand Slam champions last season.

Backed by the return of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi, they arrived in Dublin, ready to make a big statement. The visitors scored within 90 seconds through a successful attempt by Jonny May and Ireland never recovered. It would end 32-20 in England’s favor, leaving Schmidt’s team shocked. Ireland was overwhelmed by the physicality of England at night.

Henry Slade is about to score while Ireland was baffled by England in Dublin in February

Henry Slade is about to score while Ireland was baffled by England in Dublin in February

Henry Slade is about to score while Ireland was baffled by England in Dublin in February

MAIN ROLE

Johnny Sexton

The conductor of this Irish team. Sexton is the focal point of the Irish attack. They desperately need veteran Leinster No 10 in Japan.

Ireland flying half Johnny Sexton

Ireland flying half Johnny Sexton

Ireland flying half Johnny Sexton

A few weeks later, Schmidt would admit that the whole experience had “ruined his team”. His players stuttered past Scotland and Italy before a fiery white-flagged French team waved the Aviva. Another worrying loss to Wales then followed on the last day of the championship. Warren Gatland’s side dashes to victory 25-7 to seal the Grand Slam.

Investigations into Ireland’s shortcomings soon began. How could they drop out at such an alarming rate? At the time, it was believed that Schmidt kept his cards close to his chest with the World Cup on the horizon. After seeing his squad at the 2015 World Cup, when an ascending injury list contributed to a quarter-final collapse against Argentina, the New Zealander has made it his life’s work to ensure that Ireland was virtually bulletproof for the 2019 edition . If the Six Nations were concerned, the recent 57-15 bumbling through England last month was positively panic-raising.

Schmidt expected a bit of rust from his squad after an eight-day hot weather training camp in Portugal, but even he would be alarmed by the enormous ineptitude of his team. That trouncing of eight attempts was all the more worrying as 10 of the starting lineup players had taken part in the win against the All Blacks last November.

Suddenly, Schmidt is faced with selection dilemmas and concerns about frontline players who look good as the spearhead of the Irish challenge in Japan. There is increasing pressure on Rory Best and whether the 37-year-old captain of Ireland has the legs to resist a tough World Cup campaign. The likes of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Conor Murray have battled for form and this squad has been hard hit by injuries to key players.

Joe Cokanasiga is one of eight English attempts while Ireland is beaten at Twickenham

Joe Cokanasiga is one of eight English attempts while Ireland is beaten at Twickenham

Joe Cokanasiga is one of eight English attempts while Ireland is beaten at Twickenham

MAIN COACH

Joe Schmidt

The best coach ever to set foot on Irish soil. New Zealand oversaw an unprecedented era of success at Leinster before taking on Ireland’s job in 2013. Has led Ireland to three Six Nations titles (including a Grand Slam), two victories over the All Blacks, a first Springbok victory over South Africa and a 2-1 series win over Australia.

Head coach of Ireland Joe Schmidt

Head coach of Ireland Joe Schmidt

Head coach of Ireland Joe Schmidt

Schmidt is still deeply concerned about the fitness of his frontline No. 10 with Johnny Sexton and his substitute Joey Carbery both struggling for fitness this year. Carbery is currently rehabilitating an ankle injury facing a race against time to pass for his side’s World Cup opener against Scotland in Yokohama on September 22.

Dan Leavy has absolutely no flight to Tokyo. The Leinster Openin will be out of service for at least a year after a major knee injury against Ulster in April. Very much in the form of David Pocock, Leavy left a huge void in the Irish backrow.

So, is there any hope for Ireland in Japan? Despite a poignant seven months, injury issues and concerns about key players, this squad has the coaching team and the talent to make an impact in the Far East.

In Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan, Ireland can still use a pack full of talent. If Murray and Sexton can stay injury-free and find their best form, this team is suddenly a very different proposition. Arguably the best half-back clutch in the world when in top shape, Murray and Sexton can make the most of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and the prolific Jacob Stockdale.

Schmidt oversees the entire operation – which will take charge of his post as Ireland’s head coach after six and a half trophy-laden years. The Kiwi has come up with many great days in Irish rugby; it would be hard to believe that Schmidt doesn’t have a Master Plan for Japan.

If not, Ireland will face more misery at the World Cup in the coming months.

The half-back partnership of (L-R) Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is key for Ireland

The half-back partnership of (L-R) Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is key for Ireland

The half-back partnership of (L-R) Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray is key for Ireland

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