Brad Thorn probably understands more than anyone else about the blending of youth and experience. Now 40 and retired, throughout a long career he seemed to be both simultaneously – swapping in and out of codes, and even nations – in an international career that culminated with that long-awaited All Blacks World Cup win at home four years ago, that makes them the reigning champions.
Youth and experience. They’re important. But anyone who is to challenge the All Blacks, who are quite rightly the clear favourites for this tournament, will need one a little bit more than the other. “I have been really impressed by Ireland, and I have been for a while,” he says.
“When you go into a World Cup – look at 2003 with England, 2007 with South Africa and in 2011 with the All Blacks – the thing you need is experience, older heads in the team.
“With Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton – he’s not a young kid any more – arguably the best five-eighth [fly-half] in the world at the moment. And they’ve got an outstanding coach, Joe Schmidt, who I’ve played under. They look like real good challengers.
“In 2011, you had an old dog like myself, but a young Israel Dagg who tore it up. You can’t have a whole heap of old cattle, or a whole heap of young cattle. You’ve got to get the blend right. But you do need to have the experience, from what I’ve seen.”
Ireland’s three warm-up games, against Wales, Scotland and England returned two wins and a defeat at Twickenham, during which their performances have simply not matched those which won them the last two Six Nations tournaments and a glorious win over the Springboks at the end of last year. As a consequence, they are not being talked about in the same terms as they might have been. Don’t believe it for a moment.
“The coach, Schmidt, I hold him in very high esteem. This is a guy who was at Clermont, and they were so strong when he was there. He won two Heineken Cups with Leinster, back-to-back Six Nations. He is good. They’ve got belief. A big part of rugby, or anything in life, is belief. They believe in themselves.
“I see those guys being genuine contenders. They’ve beaten South Africa, beaten Australia and they should have beaten the All Blacks.”
As for England, there is much to be excited about, they are, he says, “building well”, but again, it comes down to experiences.
“Something that is important in rugby is combinations. If you look at 2003, [when] England won it, you could just pick the team, couldn’t you? Anyone could pick it.
“Stuart Lancaster has grown some depth there, which is cool, and there’s competition for places, but they need to develop those combinations, so that when the pressure comes on in those final games, you can trust your mate and it’s intuitive playing with them. You know he’ll be on the inside, or he’ll be on the outside, or wherever he needs to be. That’s an important part of playing rugby.
“I thought England finished the Six Nations well. They’re coming in strong, but the more time that the combinations can have together the better it is for the cohesion of the team. Will it affect them? Maybe not, but it’s important.”
For all the talk, anyone who wants to win this World Cup will have to beat the All Blacks. That, Thorn knows as well as anyone, is a formidable task.
“The All Blacks, at their best, well they’re pretty sharp. We’re going to play at a high intensity, and we’re going to put you under pressure. Can you stay with us? Can you play at this intensity? For 20 minutes? Are you still there at 40? Still there at 60?
“Maybe, but then it’s often in the last 20 minutes that you’ll see the All Blacks score blow out. The All Blacks will keep asking you questions. Are you going to be switched on for the full 80? Are you going to get too relaxed, just before half-time, just after? That’s when we’ll steal in with a couple of tries. You’ll need to be with us for the full 80.”
For England, and the pool they face, just getting out of the group would not be good enough, nor would losing in the quarter-finals.
“For England, getting to the semi-final will be the pass mark. The hardest thing of all is getting to the final. The All Blacks know that better than anyone. The toughest part is getting there. Once you’re there, well, someone’s going to win it.”
Land Rover ambassador Brad Thorn was speaking at the launch of 'We Deal In Real', Land Rover’s Rugby World Cup 2015 campaign @Landroverrugby, www.landrover.com/rugbyReuse content