Well, it’s now crunch time for Ireland. This Saturday (18th), we play our crucial World Cup Pool C game against Australia, and any chances of having a successful tournament could very well rest with this match. If we beat Australia (a miracle at the moment) we would have an easier quarter-final (probably against Wales) which would increase our chances of reaching a semi-final (for the first time). On the other hand, if we lose we would face South Africa in the quarters, and our chances of advancing further in the tournament would evaporate. Also if Australia completely thrash us, it would really dent our confidence going into the Italian game, and if we lose that we can kiss our chances of even reaching a quarter-final goodbye, which would be a real calamity.
Bearing all that in mind, Declan Kidney has picked close to our strongest side for this crucial game:
15 – Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster) *
14 – Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
13 – Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) (capt)
12 – Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
11 – Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
10 – Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
9 – Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
1 – Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) *
2 – Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
3 – Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
4 – Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
5 – Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
6 – Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)
7 – Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster) *
8 – Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
16 – Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
17 – Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
18 – Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster) *
19 – Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
20 – Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
21 – Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
22 – Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
He has picked our strongest back-line available, the only exception being that I would have picked Trimble ahead of Earls (although that is the backline that put in our best performance of the season, against England, in the 6 Nations). Earls has not been playing well in recent games, while Trimble was one of the only real stars of the summer/warm-up series. Still, I remember the 2009 Lions tour, where Earls had a shocking opening game, but redeemed himself later in the tour. Let’s hope he can repeat this, and show his best form when it really matters. I would also quibble with the selection of Sean O’Brien at open-side flanker. He’s much more of a natural blindside, in my view. I suppose Kidney wanted to pick Ferris, and the only way to have both on the side was to put O’Brien at 7. He’s another player we want to see a big game from (we really want to see a big game from everybody!).
Unfortunately, Ireland have suffered yet another injury, with hooker Jerry Flannery being ruled out of the remainder of the World Cup with a recurring ankle injury. Flannery has been very unlucky over the years with injury, having missed out on that ’09 Lions tour after getting injured just as the squad started training together. He had only recently recovered from that injury. So it seems, though. Apparently he came out with the squad not fully fit, and the coaches had hoped he would improve. This has happened before, noticeably on the 2001 Lions tour. It’s no good for the players themselves, nor the squad, when this happens. Players going on tour not fully fit, and not been able to play. I suppose it’s natural that he would want to risk it, but now he faces more time away from the game, recuperating. Whereas if he had stayed at home he could have let the injury completely heal. On a similar note, apparently Brian O’Driscoll is carrying a few knocks as well, and is not fully fit. That would be all we’d need, if O’Driscoll was ruled out. Let’s hope not. The loss of Flannery is bad enough, as it means that we only have one first choice hooker, Rory Best, in the squad. Hooker is such a key position on the field, that you need at least 2 great players who can play there. Best can’t play all the games, obviously (he’d be too tired to be effective), which automatically affects our chances of success.
Ireland have had a poor season, so far. A poor Autumn series in 2010, leading into a disappointing 6 Nations, and a calamitous summer series. 13 matches played, and only one good performance, the aforementioned England game. Also, our opening game of the World Cup, against the States, was disappointing as well. Still, this match is what really matters. This is the most important game, against the Wallabies. If Ireland can reclaim its 2009 form, where we won the Grand Slam, beat South Africa, and drew with Australia, we have a good chance. Maybe not of winning the game, but if we can keep them with 7 points, or stop them scoring 4 tries, we would deny them a bonus point, which would help our chances of advancing in the tournament. At this stage, best we can hope for would be that Ireland don’t embarrass themselves. We’ve seen how well these players can play before, let’s hope we see it again. Especially when it’s the last chance of doing well in a World Cup for so many of them. The last chance to really put a stamp on the game, on the world stage, where it matters the most.