Ahead of the Rugby World Cup we’re asking some rugby legends to assess the chances of each of the home nations. Here, Ireland’s most capped player and record try-scorer, Brian O’Driscoll, assesses Joe Schmidt’s side.
Thoughts on the squad?
On the whole I’m pretty happy with it, the balance looks good. There were some contentious decisions, like Devin Toner. Jean Kleyn brings more ballast to the pack, but I’m not totally convinced that what he offers merits his inclusion given what you give up by not having Toner. The overseas rule is not the issue, I understand why people are upset, but for me the person coming in hasn’t convinced in big games, instead of someone who has a proven record of performing at the highest level.
Kieran Marmion is another who will probably feel hard done by, but it’s a 50/50 call and Luke McGrath has had a couple of standout moments that may have tipped him over the edge. Joe puts so much emphasis into what he sees in training, not just games, so you have to trust his process.
Most excited about?
There’s a nice balance between power and firepower. In the backs you have the bludgeon of Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki to compliment that likes of Jordan Lamour and Andrew Conway – I’m excited that both of those two made the squad and like them together. That said, Robbie Henshaw is a huge loss. You hope the players that reached soft lofty heights last year, get back close to those standards because they could anybody playing like that.
Most worried about?
Going into a World Cup you want confidence and it was definitely dented in the Six Nations, against England and against Wales. The recent warm-up at Twickenham won't have helped either. Add in that our two biggest games of the pool are the first two and it makes things interesting.
If we win both then everything looks great, lose one of them and we’ve got our backs to the wall immediately. Against Japan we’ll have to battle the crowd, as well as what’s on the field and it’ll be Japan at their very best. We’ve got to try to remember what got us to the heights that we reached. What game did we play? What accuracy did we have? Why were we good?
Faith in the coach?
There’s certainly total confidence from the squad, but he’ll have split opinion with his selection policy. Munster fans will give out about certain selections, but then Leinster and Ulster fans will do the same elsewhere - that’s the parochial nature of Irish rugby. On the whole, people that know rugby know what Joe has done over the last five or six years. Beating the All Blacks, winning in Australia. If you don’t have faith in him, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Schmidt’s legacy will depend on this World Cup, which is nonsense because he’s been incredible since he arrived. He’s beaten every single Tier 1 nation in the world over the last 18 months but I get the sense he feels a little more under pressure than normal.
What constitutes success?
I think that depends on who you ask. Would you be happy going out at the semi-finals – the players? No. The public? At this stage, yes. From going to world-beaters to falling off a cliff, as far as the Irish public are concerned, people are very worried going into this tournament. Everyone thinks they’ll get knocked out in the quarters, especially given the recent form of South Africa. I’ve never played in a World Cup semi-final, but what I’ve seen from afar is that all bets are off at the at stage, but you have to get there first.
How far will they go?
It wouldn’t shock me to go out in the quarter-finals, given what we’d be up against. We may have more chance against New Zealand than South Africa, but both are incredible teams. They get through that game and then anything could happen after that.
Who will contest the final, and who will win?
England and South Africa. I just fancy England and where they’re at right now. Their power game is clicking, their key playmakers are playing with lots of confidence, goalkickers are playing well and they have lots of strength in depth. To me, they look the most balanced out of the lot.
Brian was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019.With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby
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