Rugby World Cup: Unpredictable, unreliable but intriguing emerald isle

THE MAIN CONTENDERS England prepared for unlikely gamble, France primed to gambol while Australia calculate odds and Ireland play wild card
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The Independent Online
SOME PECULIAR comments have been emanating from Dublin over the last few weeks, the strangest of all concerning the now infamous plot to "throw" the Pool E game against Australia in order to avoid a sudden death contest with Wales in the last eight. Now there's a funny thing. The Irish have not lost in Cardiff since 1983, which also happens to be the year in which they last beat France, their likely quarter-final alternatives. Warren Gatland, their coach, manfully attempted to explain this emerald-tinged theory, but the entire business remains about as clear as a peat bog.

It certainly riled the Wallabies, though. "Who the hell are the Irish to talk about chucking a game against us?" snarled one of the Allied Dunbar Premiership's many Australian imports. "If anyone's going to throw something, it ought to be the side with a chance of winning." All of which raised another eyebrow or three. The last time Australia sauntered into Dublin on World Cup business in 1991, they very nearly came an almighty cropper. Only Michael Lynagh's cool head and Rob Saunders' dodgy radar prevented an upset of Guinness Brewery proportions.

There is a simple lesson here: never rule the Irish in, and certainly don't rule them out. They are a wild card, unpredictable and unreliable and every other "un" you care to mention. The moment the pundits start talking up their forwards they slip into reverse gear and crumble at the first sign of resistance. As soon as they are saddled with the "no- hopers" tag, however, they come out fighting like Joe Frazier on heat. The fur flies, the boots and fists hit their target and, whaddyaknow, a wholly unexpected victory is in the bag.

The likelihood must be they will lose to Australia, but they are equally likely to survive spirited but flawed challenges from Romania and, in particular, a United States outfit profoundly humiliated by the recent three-figure reverse at Twickenham. What happens next is the key, for the Irish would then travel to Lens in northern France for a Wednesday night play-off against the best of the third-placed teams, Fiji or Canada, perhaps, Argentina, Italy, or Western Samoa. No pushovers there, even for a country that has never failed to make the last eight of a World Cup tournament.

Too many Irish forwards appear to be shadows of their former selves. Paul Wallace, among the very best tight-head props in Europe, has played so much rugby over the last two and a half years that he is out on his feet; Paddy Johns, that route-one hard case from Ulster, is beginning to look every one of his 31 years; Jeremy Davidson, such a revelation with the Lions in 1997, has revealed very little since; and Eric Miller, the most gifted of them all, cannot seem to find his way off the replacements' bench. If the Irish are intent on punching their weight in this tournament, Miller has to be on the park from minute one.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Irish effort concerns the progress or otherwise of young Brian O'Driscoll, the outside centre from Blackrock College. Here is a Lion in the making. In Australia during the summer, he backed himself against the might of Daniel Herbert and won a few tricks, if not the rubber. Herbert will go looking for him on 10 October, but O'Driscoll's pace suggests the hunt may prove fruitless.

IRELAND

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Dion O'Cuinneagain

World Cup record: 1987 - Quarter-finalists; 1991 - Quarter-finalists; 1995 - Quarter-finalists

How they qualified: Winners of European Pool 1

Registered adult players: 16,000

Conor O'Shea (London Irish)

Girvan Dempsey (Terenure)

Justin Bishop (London Irish)

Matt Mostyn (Galwegians)

James Topping (Ballymena)

Jonathan Bell (Dungannon)

Kevin Maggs (Bath)

Mike Mullins (Young Munster)

Brian O'Driscoll (Blackrock)

David Humphreys (Dungannon)

Eric Elwood (Galwegians)

Tom Tierney (Garryowen)

Brian O'Meara (Cork Constitution)

Peter Clohessy (Young Munster)

Reggie Corrigan (Lansdowne)

Justin Fitzpatrick (Dungannon)

Angus McKeen (Lansdowne)

Paul Wallace (Saracens)

Keith Wood (Garryowen)

Ross Nesdale (Newcastle)

Jeremy Davidson (Castres)

Paddy Johns (Dungannon)

Malcolm O'Kelly (St Mary's)

Robert Casey (Blackrock)

Trevor Brennan (St Mary's)

David Corkery (Cork Constitution)

Kieron Dawson (London Irish)

Andy Ward (Ballynahinch)

Dion O'Cuinneagain (Ballymena, capt) Eric Miller (Terenure)

SQUAD

Key player

KEITH WOOD

(Hooker)

The Irish rarely hit the high spots when Wood is stuck on terra firma. When he takes off, however, it is a case of Watch Out World. At his best he is a uniquely driven competitor, an energising force of rugby nature with an implacable appetite.

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