O'Shea unleashed and set to answer the call

HOME PROSPECTS; No 3: Ireland
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The Independent Online
The Irish party (the words Irish and party go well together, don't you think?) visited a Guinness brewery in Johannesburg last night. Ireland are in serious training for the World Cup.

The Irish could do with a drop of the black stuff before facing the All Blacks after a traumatic build up. The feeling here is that if Ireland are to stand a chance against New Zealand at Ellis Park on Saturday evening, their first match in Group C, they might have to emulate the Moroka Swallows.

The Swallows are a South African First Division soccer team who, on Saturday, were accused of using magical powers against the QwaQwa Stars in Soweto. The Stars claimed a Swallows official splashed "magical water" on them before the game and had threatened them with a knobkerrie (a stick).

The Stars players demanded that referee delay the start to allow their jerseys to dry. The game kicked off 10 minutes late. The Stars also alleged that a Swallows official, James Ngidi, had sprinkled the offending water in the QwaQwa goalmouth during half-time. Swallows, who are threatened with relegation, scored a last-minute equaliser in a 1- 1 draw. The Stars are protesting to the National Soccer League.

Anyway, Ireland are in need of something. They had a disappointing Five Nations' Championship - a solitary win over Wales in Cardiff in the wooden spoon decider - but what really opened Irish eyes was the abortive trip to Italy two weeks ago. It was meant to be a gentle opener but it exploded in their faces. On a sultry evening in Treviso, near Venice, Ireland were defeated 22-12.

It was no fluke result, although the Irish can point to a few mitigating factors. There was, of course, the heat and a hostile, capacity crowd of 10,000. Ireland had had an arduous week's training in Kilkenny and some observers felt that, in the second half particularly, they were a spent force.

Italy, on the other hand, are on the up. The match was held in the Benetton Stadium and the company is pouring serious money into Italian rugby. This helps to explain why Michael Lynagh, the Australian captain, and David Campese play there.

Paul Burke kicked all Ireland's points with four penalties but was otherwise unimpressive and the likelihood is that Ireland, who name their side tomorrow, will go for the old half-back pairing of Eric Elwood and Michael Bradley rather than Burke and Niall Hogan.

Ireland are also expected to play Conor O'Shea at full-back instead of the Harlequin Jim Staples, and David Corkery, who was dropped after the defeat by England in Dublin, on the blindside of the back row. Ireland's dilemma, and it is a problem shared by nearly every other country competing in South Africa, is whether to field their best XV on every occasion.

Yesterday Elwood, who was injured early on against Wales in the Five Nations and was replaced by Burke, was talking as if he knew he would play against the All Blacks. Indeed, he is licking his lips at the prospect, not least because at altitude Elwood, a specialist goal-kicker, has discovered he can get extra distance on the ball.

O'Shea is accustomed to the conditions here after playing in the Republic with the Irish development squad two years ago. "We've been straining at the leash for the past four days just getting acclimatised," O'Shea said. "Now we're off it. When the Irish get their teeth into a team anything can happen."

This is true, although it does not happen often. As an example O'Shea mentioned the terrific fright Ireland gave Australia in the quarter-finals at Lansdowne Road in 1991 before losing 19-18 in the last minute. "We love it here," O'Shea said. "You have to breathe harder but the firm grounds will mean we can play an expansive game."

The All Blacks will certainly ensure that Ireland breathe harder and faster, and whether the Irish, who have some world class threequarters, can play an expansive game or not depends on whether they will win the ball. The coach Gerry Murphy, who held a press conference a few days ago to deny a report in a Belfast newspaper that he had been sacked, said: "The boys genuinely believe they can beat New Zealand." This is the same man who two weeks ago described Ireland's performance in Italy as "shocking."

Nevertheless, Ireland have been rehearsing a new anthem, and stirring stuff it is. It goes: "Come the day, And come the hour, Come the power and the glory, We have come to answer, Our Country's call ... From the four proud provinces of Ireland." Chorus: "Ireland, Ireland, Together standing tall, Shoulder to shoulder, We'll answer Ireland's call ... etc."

It is called "Ireland's Call."

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