Ireland are World Cup contenders: O'Driscoll

Rugby great Brian O'Driscoll is confident the Irish, who have never been in the semi-finals, can wrest the World Cup from New Zealand.
Rugby great Brian O'Driscoll is confident the Irish, who have never been in the semi-finals, can wrest the World Cup from New Zealand.

The New Zealand All Blacks may be three-time world rugby champions and the top-ranked team in the world but, if there's one team who can puncture their aura of invincibility at this year's Rugby World Cup, it will be Ireland.

The Irish ended a 113-year wait last November when they shocked the All Blacks 16-9 in Dublin - their first victory over their illustrious opponents on home soil - which bodes well for their chances at the Sept 20-Nov 2 tournament in Japan.

Retired Brian O'Driscoll, the legendary centre who captained Ireland from 2003 to 2012, hailed the victory as a key stepping stone for the third-ranked team in the world.

"The reality is that if you want to win the World Cup, you're probably going to beat the All Blacks in the competition," the 40-year-old told The Straits Times in a phone interview last week. "With this win, the fear factor that once existed is not there anymore."

The Irish made history in 2016 when they defeated the All Blacks 40-29 for the first time at the Autumn Internationals in Chicago.

With the current crop of players, O'Driscoll felt they stand a good chance of winning their first World Cup.

Ireland are in Pool A with Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa. New Zealand are drawn with South Africa, Italy, Namibia and Canada in Pool B.

"We're not one of the big names. We're not like New Zealand, South Africa or Australia, we're a level below that," O'Driscoll added.

"But the standards that we've hit in the last few years have made us World Cup contenders.

"We've beaten good teams before and that definitely bodes well for us.

"The strength and depth of the team are good and, coupled with a nice balance between seniors players and young blood.

"It's a good opportunity (for them) to win (the World Cup)."

While O'Driscoll acknowledges the many obstacles Ireland face, he remains optimistic.

"The quality of the entire squad, not just the starting XV, has to be good and having to win seven games in a row is very difficult," he said.

"But, as long as Ireland play to their strengths, continue with what they have been doing in the last 12 months and believe in their own abilities, they are capable of great things."

Under coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland have won three Six Nations crown in five years - including last year's Grand Slam.

The 53-year-old also masterminded a 2-1 Test series victory over Australia last year - their first in Down Under since 1979 - and a first away victory over South Africa in 2016.

The Irish were ranked as high as second, but dropped to third after Wales' Grand Slam victory at the recent Six Nations. In Japan, they will bid to become the second world champions from the Northern Hemisphere, after England's triumph in 2003, since the World Cup's inception in 1987.

Besides the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia (two each) are the only multiple World Cup winners.

While Ireland will pose a threat in Japan, former South African winger Bryan Habana also talked up Wales' chances.

"Going into 2019, the Irish were in good form. Post-Six Nations, they went through a lull, but I think that they will go into the World Cup as fierce competitors," said the 35-year-old, who is known for his explosive pace and was part of the South African team who won the 2007 world title.

"But, with their Six Nations victory, Wales also look like strong contenders."

Xener Gill

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2019, with the headline 'Ireland are World Cup contenders: O'Driscoll'. Print Edition | Subscribe