Is This Ireland’s Tournament to Lose?
As the Cranberries rang out around the Stade de France a fortnight ago, it seemed like a turning point in this World Cup for all competing nations as Ireland made a statement. Ireland have climbed Everest in only game three of the pool stages, beating the reigning World Champions, and now everyone asks: is this Ireland's tournament to lose?
It has almost become cliché to say that being on this side of the draw is tough. All five of the top-ranked teams in the world are in Pools A and B, meaning only two of them can make it to a World Cup semi-final, which seems almost absurd to the casual viewer. However, it does mean that should the winner of the Webb Ellis Cup be one of these teams it would be almost undeniable that it would be one of the greatest World Cup squads in history.
A lot has been said of this Ireland team in the build-up to this World Cup, especially in comparison with the only other northern hemisphere side to win the tournament: England 20 years ago in Australia. And the comparisons are entirely valid. Both sides are heavily reliant on a fly half that controls the tempo of the game, and with their boot, both sides entered the tournament ranked number one in the world; both won a Six Nations Grand Slam in a World Cup year, and both won a summer series victory in the southern hemisphere and have consistently beaten southern hemisphere sides. To this end, it is clear to see how the pressure is mounting on this Ireland side to get it right this tournament.
That being said, it leaves Ireland in a difficult position. Despite having had a rest weekend following South Africa, Andy Farrell will have to use all of his man-management skills to ensure his squad is poised both physically and mentally for what's to come. To top their group, they will hope to beat Scotland at the Stade de France tonight, and despite recent history suggesting this should be a no-brainer, Scotland needs to win if they have any hope of making it out of the pool, and it will be sure to be another tough fixture.
However, should Ireland successfully top their group as expected, they will then face New Zealand in the quarter finals. Despite beating France in their grand slam campaign in the Six Nations, in an odd sense for the rugby world, it is more likely that Ireland would prefer to face the All Blacks in the quarters. Ever since that emphatic win at the Aviva in the 2018 Autumn internationals, Ireland have become a bit of a bogey team for New Zealand. The Irish have won four out of six of the last meetings, including the 2-1 tour victory in the summer series for the first time in their history. Yet, there is the age-old curse that no team in the professional era has beaten New Zealand and gone on to win the World Cup.
Should Ireland once again beat the All Blacks and advance to the semi-finals, they will face one of the teams from the more 'favourable' side of the draw. Most likely, based on how the groups are laying out, they will face a Welsh side that, despite a significant resurgence under world-class head coach Warren Gatland, are still a significantly weaker side on paper in terms of depth, quality and cohesiveness than the Irish. Ireland have won four out of five of their last meetings with the Welsh since the previous World Cup, with a significant 34-10 victory in the 2023 Six Nations.
With the way the tournament is laid out, Ireland should make it to the final for the first time in their history. However, as is well known, Ireland has never made it past a World Cup quarter-final before, with many seeing it as a curse for this side with plenty of good Irish teams in the past not being successful, such as in 2015 getting knocked out by Argentina in Cardiff. Furthermore, due to being on this side of the draw, as previously mentioned, unlike Wales or England, Ireland faces one formidable opponent after the next with little rest. It will be a massive ask for Andy Farrell to manage his squad effectively. However, with the return of key players such as Dan Sheehan to the squad, the time is now or never for this Irish squad.
They have beaten the reigning world champions and have the opportunity to take their crown, win the illustrious trophy and be immortalised in their nation's history forever.