Improved Ireland struggle with World Cup pedigree

Johnny Sexton (Getty Images)
Johnny Sexton (Getty Images)

Paris - Over the last four years, rugby in Ireland has boomed with Joe Schmidt's side winning a Six Nations Grand Slam and twice knocking off the All Blacks.

The levels of expectation among players and public have risen accordingly although, as the Irish head off to Japan, there lies are an uneasy undeniable thought: Ireland are not very good at World Cups.

Of the leading five nations in Europe, they are the only ones never to make a semi-final, their journeys almost always ending in anti-climactic disappointment in the quarter-finals.

Only once, in 1991, did they come close to a place in the semi-finals but Gordon Hamilton's heroic late try which appeared to have seen them past the Wallabies was undone moments later by some slack defence and a little bit of Michael Lynagh magic.

In 2007, they were hammered by France and Argentina and never made it out of their pool.

Schmidt, who is stepping down from his role of coach after the tournament, is a pragmatist and is refusing to make any rash promises that 2019 is the Year of the Irish.

"They are going to be utterly committed to trying to get beyond that quarter-final phase," he said after announcing his team.

"The most frustrating thing about this job is that I can work as hard as I like but I still can't guarantee you anything other than we will try to put our best foot forward."

After an underwhelming Six Nations which saw them well-beaten by Wales and England, there is a feeling that the Irish peaked too soon - with a memorable 16-9 win over the All Blacks in Dublin last November.

A number of younger players have been drafted into the team, notably South Africa-born lock forward Jean Kleyn whose inclusion so soon after becoming eligible under residency rules, led to the controversial exclusion of the veteran lighthouse Devin Toner.

Brian O'Driscoll said the decision to leave out the 2.11m Meath man "beggars belief" while another former captain Malcolm O'Kelly told the Irish Examiner that it was "shocking news".

"I know the value he (Toner) brings in set pieces, the lineout and the kick-off. He's a very safe pair of hands, and he has been for many years."

In spite of the absence of Toner, the pack still has a mix of the durable and the dynamic, led by the 37-year-old hooker Rory Best who, like Schmidt, will step away from the scene after Japan.

Leading the line is the experienced halfback pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, last year's World Player of the Year.

"There is good strength in depth there now," says Sexton.

"That's what we've built over the last couple of years through guys getting injured, Joe giving guys lots of chances through the last couple of Six Nations, and we'll see if we are the strongest squad put together if we get past the quarter-final."

Getting past the quarter-finals, that is what it is all about for the Irish.

While they will not be underestimating the challenge of Japan, Samoa and even Russia in the pool stages, the most serious challenger will be near neighbours Scotland.

The quarter-finals, though, will need a gargantuan effort as, unless there is another rugby miracle in Pool B, they will face either New Zealand or South Africa.

The four proud provinces will be hoping that Schmidt and Best and the rest of the team finally answer Ireland's call.

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