RWC 2015 preview: The lowdown on Ireland

All four countries have had their dramas in the build-up. Chris Hewett assesses who will best shrug off  the woe

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The Independent Online

Up and down like a Paul O'Connell line-out routine – their first-half performance in the last warm-up game against England was on the dire side of desperate – Ireland are not heading into the World Cup in anything like as positive a frame of mind as might have been the case. Back in mid-August, when they prevailed over a useful Scotland team in Dublin and recorded their 13th victory in 14 outings, their second place in the world rankings did not quite seem a complete joke, even if there was always something faintly amusing about the notion. A month later, we find them in sixth.

This is a far more realistic assessment of their strength in global terms: for all their shape and structure – no fair-minded person could accuse Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander who has been coaching the team these last two years, of failing to furnish his players with a detailed game plan – they are so profoundly reluctant to go off-script that any opposing tactician worth his salt can see them coming a mile off.

Of course, knowing what Ireland intend to do and stopping them doing it are two very different things. If the back-row unit goes well, it is a force to be reckoned with: we can expect the first-choice flankers, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, to put their recent Twickenham performances down to experience and respond accordingly, while the No 8 Jamie Heaslip not only possesses all the gifts, but has the strength of character to use them. Supported by an engine-room contingent in which the Ulster lock Iain Henderson may stake a claim as the new O’Connell, there is strength in the back five of the scrum.

As for the half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, we are talking here about the best in Europe. But the Irish know there are many tons of earth still in need of shovelling before the Brian O’Driscoll-sized hole in midfield is finally filled, and with the dynamic loose-head prop Cian Healy short of match sharpness, there has been a diminishing of the X-factor fore and aft.

In a sense, Ireland still have two warm-up games in which to hit optimum form. Their opening World Cup pool game against Canada at the Millennium Stadium is less than hazardous; the second, against Romania at Wembley, may turn out to be even less challenging. The matches that count? Italy in round three, France in round four.

The lowdown on:
England
Scotland
Wales

They have decent records against both: the defeat in Rome in 2013 was their first at the hands of the Azzurri in Six Nations history, although they briefly made a habit of losing to them in the mid-1990s; the last time they finished second to Les Bleus in a “real” game, as opposed to a World Cup warm-up, was as long ago as February 2011. But the World Cup fixtures ahead are risk-extreme: indeed, the thought of playing the French in a one-off pool decider on neutral territory is enough to keep anyone awake at night. Where’s that O’Driscoll bloke when you need him?

SQUAD

Forwards R Best, S Cronin, T Furlong, C Healy, J Heaslip, I Henderson, C Henry, J McGrath, J Murphy, S O’Brien, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony, M Ross, D Ryan, R Strauss, D Toner, N White.

Backs T Bowe, D Cave, K Earls, L Fitzgerald, R Henshaw, P Jackson, D Kearney, R Kearney, I Madigan, C Murray, J Payne, E Reddan, J Sexton, S Zebo.

Strengths

The best half-backs in Europe

Weakness

Ultra-conservative in attack

Main man

Jonathan Sexton

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