If any team can break new ground, it's Andy Farrell's Ireland

If any team can break new ground, it’s this one… Andy Farrell’s Ireland have so much in their favour but sport’s cruel unpredictability could yet derail the bid for ultimate glory

  • Andy Farrell’s Ireland enter the World Cup with real momentum behind them
  • They are looking to become the first Irish side to make it past the quarter-finals 
  • Ireland look well-placed to go far this time, but World Cups are unpredictable
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

We’ve never had it so good – and it still might not be good enough.

This is the finest Irish team of the professional era, and the best from this island to go to a World Cup. They can produce the quality of performances that turned the team into the world’s No 1 week after week in France, and still go home before the semi-finals, like Irish groups have done at all nine previous World Cups.

There is no way of dressing up another quarter-final ejection as anything but failure, but if Ireland are to go at least one stage better than all of their forebears in green, it will make tremendous demands of even this high-achieving generation. Not managing to do so would constitute a missed opportunity that would haunt all involved for the rest of their careers, and the memories would taunt them thereafter, too.

The price of failure when a team is the best in the world is forbiddingly high. Yet if any team can break new ground, it is this one, under the expert care of Andy Farrell. They have, over the past two years, become a mesmerising blend of cool, considered tactics, and joyful expressionism.

The first part of that equation is Joe Schmidt’s legacy to the Irish game, and if his Irish reign ended in World Cup ignominy, the wider benefits he introduced to professional rugby here provide much of the preparatory bedrock on which Farrell has built his monument to excellence.

Ireland completed the third Six Nations grand slam in their history earlier this year

Head coach Andy Farrell has assembled the best Ireland team of the professional era

But Ireland have suffered World Cup heartbreak before, most recently losing heavily to New Zealand in the 2019 quarter-finals

Schmidt took the randomness out of Irish rugby, making it less reliant on emotion and spasms of good play. He did so by drilling his players to an exhaustive extent – and that became the team’s downfall.

They were so conditioned to do as instructed that they lost trust in their ability to think freely. And when opponents worked out Schmidt’s tactics, everything unravelled. There was nowhere to go but to pieces. Farrell was part of Schmidt’s coaching team, and it’s no coincidence that the message he tirelessly transmits is the readiness of his players to deal with unforeseen events.

It is not the capacity to endure setbacks that stands out, but the relish with which Farrell greets bad news. This Ireland team take disappointment, root through it and find sustenance. The most glittering example was in coming back from losing the opening Test to New Zealand last year by 23 points, and finding a way to win the series.

It’s easily forgotten that Ireland lost that opening match in Eden Park 42-19, yet squeaked a terrifically tense victory a week later, before hitting marvellous heights seven days on to defeat the game’s standard-bearers in Wellington.

Their next Test came almost four months later, and it ended in victory over the world champions, South Africa, in Dublin.

That ability to maintain the steepling standards needed to beat the best is both a tribute to the talent of the players and the leadership of Farrell, and is reliant on keeping the best and most important players fit for the days that matter.

The team last lost a Test on July 2 2022, that opening fixture on the New Zealand tour. Since then, there have been 13 consecutive victories, while their winning home record extends to 16. To date, the team have played 38 Tests under Farrell, winning 31 and losing seven.

Excellence has become their routine – and still it may not be enough. This is because World Cups have taught the Irish people two important lessons. The first is that there is always a new way to be disappointed, most vividly emphasised in 2007. And the second is that even when fortunes are on an upswing, the risk posed by injuries can be ruinous.

Ireland disappointed in 2007, with Brian O’Driscoll (pictured) unable to help his side beyond the last eight

The 2015 tournament also ended in misery for Ireland as they were knocked out by Argentina

The 2015 World Cup brought the clearest example of that. France were defeated in a gripping pool decider in Cardiff, but the cost of victory was catastrophic. Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony sustained injuries that saw them miss the quarter-final against Argentina, and Sean O’Brien’s dumb punch on Pascal Pape got him suspended. An underpowered Ireland were completely out-played by the Pumas.

The memory of the aftermath of that win against the French eight years ago has returned as kick-off for this World Cup draws nearer.

It may have been an extreme example of the costs of victory, but in seeking to overcome South Africa, in particular, the risk to Ireland’s front-liners is pronounced. And in truth, unexpected injury is the most obvious threat to Farrell’s Ireland, because in other aspects of the game, they look terrific.

Variables remain, with wrinkles at the lineout in need of remedial action. Ensuring a safe return for Sexton is critical, too. But these are everyday concerns, and there was evidence in the second half of the recent England warm-up game that the team are moving closer to their best.

Samoa gave an unfamiliar line-up a scare in Bayonne, but conditions were poor and the selection was a mix-and-match of regulars and hopefuls. There is no reason to doubt that a full-strength team will not play their way to their best.

This is because this version of the national side knows what it needs to do every bit as thoroughly as any team Schmidt ever picked in green. The crucial difference is that this iteration are not learning their moves off by heart. Instead, they are given the skills to play an expansive game and trusted to make the big calls on the field.

In reimagining the national side, Farrell made a smart choice in recruiting Mike Catt as his backs coach, and an inspired one in recruiting O’Connell to oversee the forwards. Time and again, though, word comes back from camp about Farrell’s strengths as a people person, and it is the enormous trust in people, even more than tactics, that marks out this regime from the one that preceded it.

This approach has seen Hugo Keenan flourish in a brilliant back three, in which James Lowe thrives. But it’s the impact made by Mack Hansen that constitutes one of the great triumphs of this new era. He joins Jamison Gibson-Park, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne and Caelan Doris as talents that have become global stars under Farrell’s care.

But the person-first style has seen the squad generally empowered, with the leadership group within that especially influential. Sexton, O’Mahony, Conor Murray and James Ryan are prominent figures, with Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Gibson-Park also strong presences within the set-up.

Ensuring that the balance of responsibility is maintained within the coaching group is Farrell’s responsibility, and he has managed it perfectly.

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park (pictured) is just one of the players to blossom into a world-class star under Farrell

Ireland also have powerful centre Bundee Aki to call upon, making them a well-rounded side

This results in fierce loyalty both ways, and it means that whatever befalls Ireland over the coming weeks in France, there is little danger of failure resulting from a disenchanted group.

Happiness, unfortunately, will not win a World Cup, and this is where the absurd World Cup draw becomes relevant.

Having three of the world’s top five teams in one group is clearly ridiculous, but it’s a consequence of World Rugby making the draw for this tournament almost three years ago. At that time, Ireland were enduring the pains of transitioning from one era to a new one, and the Scots were nothing like the team they have become.

Much can change in a couple of seasons, and the upshot is that one outstanding team will not make it out of Ireland’s group. Another consequence is that a fearful quarter-final draw awaits the two teams that do make it out, while the other side of the draw, stuffed with mediocrity, could see a team like England, in pitiful straits, make the last four. So could a mediocre Wales or callow Australia.

Were Ireland to survive the pool and make it past France or New Zealand in the last eight, the lopsided draw would mean a hugely appetising semi-final, with the prospect of a place in the final so close.

But ifs and buts seem especially far away when the Springboks and Scotland have to be overcome in the space of a fortnight.

Even with that concentrated challenge, Ireland can be optimistic. It helps that they have a fortnight’s break between the two matches, and it will undoubtedly be required given the toll that beating the South Africans would take.

But this Irish team can do it. As the past two years have shown, they can do just about anything. It’s doing it in a tight window that’s required to win the World Cup, and with little recovery time and with unrelenting demands placed on a handful of irreplaceable players.

They are Keenan, Ringrose, Sexton, Doris, Furlong and Porter. A significant injury to any one of those could be decisive. And even if disaster does befall his team, Farrell will insist on finding the good side, and he will gather his players around him and convince them that, despite all, they can keep going.

And they will, until there is nowhere left for them to go.

That won’t win a World Cup, either – but it means that this is the most talented, best-prepared Irish squad to ever travel in hope.

Ireland desperately need Jonny Sexton (pictured) to stay fit if they are to go far in France

Full back Hugo Keenan (above) is another key player Ireland will be relying on at the World Cup

They can do it. The ranking, the results, and the quality of the squad show as much. They’ll need to keep as many as possible fit and healthy, but if they do that, reaching the last four is achievable.

And if they get that far, a place in the final is waiting to be claimed.

And then? Then the country loses the run of itself.

But before all that, there is the wicked unpredictability of sport to consider – and that poses the greatest threat to Irish ambitions.

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