Rugby

Former captain Brian O'Driscoll backs Irish to end slump before Rugby World Cup

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll believes Japan’s players “will be licking their lips” at the prospect of facing an out-of-sorts Ireland at next month’s Rugby World Cup, with a first-ever quarterfinal place for the Brave Blossoms the potential reward.

“If ever there was a chance to get to a quarterfinal, I think they would be pretty pleased with the group that they’ve found themselves in, particularly with the form that Ireland have shown since the turn of the year,” former Ireland captain O’Driscoll, who appeared at four Rugby World Cups, told The Japan Times this week.

“Likewise, Scotland have been a bit helter-skelter with performances and results,” he said. “So if I was in that Japanese set-up, I would be thinking that this is a real opportunity presenting itself.”

Japan is almost ready to welcome the world to Asia’s first-ever Rugby World Cup, with the Brave Blossoms kicking off the tournament against Russia at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 20 before taking on Ireland, Samoa and Scotland in Pool A.

Ireland looked the runaway favorite to top that group at the start of the year. Joe Schmidt’s men have beaten world champion New Zealand twice in the last three years, have won the Six Nations three times since 2014, and started 2019 ranked No. 2 in the world.

Since January, however, the green machine has begun to sputter. A chastening Six Nations campaign saw the Irish finish third behind Wales and England, before a 57-15 drubbing by England at Twickenham last Saturday set alarm bells ringing less than a month before the World Cup begins.

O’Driscoll believes the Irish have the chance to turn things around in their penultimate warm-up game against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. But the 40-year-old, who played 133 times for Ireland and eight times for the British and Irish Lions before retiring in 2014, making him the second-most-capped international player of all time behind New Zealand’s Richie McCaw, knows there is no time to waste.

“Off the back of last weekend’s result and performance, they could be in better shape,” said O’Driscoll, who will be in Japan for the latter stages of the World Cup, in his roles as a TV analyst and an ambassador for Land Rover, the official vehicle of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

“Obviously, there is a bit of nervousness in Ireland with where they are, how preparations are going and the necessity to get a bit of confidence in advance of the two big games of the pool, against Scotland and Japan,” he said. “They’re not exactly where they want to be, but that can be quickly rectified with a better performance this weekend against Wales. But they need to pull the finger out a bit.”

Less than a year ago, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen claimed Ireland was “now the No. 1 team in the world,” after the Irish had beaten the All Blacks 16-9 in Dublin. O’Driscoll believes his countrymen may have allowed Hansen’s comments to go to their heads a little.

“We don’t do cockiness and arrogance — at least we try not to — and maybe we’re better suited to coming in under the radar a little bit,” said O’Driscoll. “Being the front-runner, as Steve Hansen put it last November, I don’t know if that sits easily with us. Maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves but the reins have been pulled back in.”

Not everyone in Ireland is so concerned by the team’s poor 2019 form, however. O’Driscoll’s former international teammate, Jamie Heaslip, who won 95 caps for Ireland between 2006 and 2017, believes recent results can be written off as simply a blip.

“I think people think that there is a downward trend off the back of the England game and the Six Nations, but I don’t believe so,” said former No. 8 Heaslip. “The margins between winning and losing the Six Nations are so fine that there’s not a whole lot of difference in terms of form. I think this team has been in a really good place. They’ve got a really good squad — probably the best squad Ireland have ever assembled. I think they’ve got a really good opportunity.”

Ireland has appeared at every edition of the Rugby World Cup but has never made it past the quarterfinals. Heaslip admits his country has failed to fulfill its potential on the world stage, but he believes this could be the year things change.

“I think they can win it,” he said. “There are a lot of good teams, and things will have to happen for them, and luck as well thrown in there. But they’re more than capable.”

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