Heavy Ulster influence sees Ireland in good shape heading into World Cup
As teams finalise their preparations for the Rugby World Cup, the focus is already on which nations will be battling it out in the latter stages of the tournament. While it has traditionally been the three southern hemisphere powerhouses – New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – who have started the event as the firm favourites, there is a growing belief that this year could see a team from the north lift the Webb Ellis Trophy for just the second time in history.
Defending champions New Zealand might be heading to the UK confident of retaining the crown they won on home soil in 2011, but the All Blacks will know they won’t be able to simply turn up and walk over those teams that they used to. England, the only northern hemisphere team to win the tournament, look to be leading the charge from the Home Nations, although Ireland and Wales are both capable of mounting their own challenges. Ireland, who currently have 10 Ulster players in their squad, are more than capable of coming out on top of the Home Nations in this World Cup, and their recent Six Nations domination should leave nobody in any doubt as to how good they can be.
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So let’s have a closer look at how the Home Nations are looking as we edge closer to the start of the eighth World Cup.
There were some who felt that Irish rugby union would never be the same when Brian O’Driscoll hung up his boots after an illustrious career. However, some 18 months after the country’s most capped player retired, Ireland look as strong as any northern hemisphere team heading into this World Cup. Having retained the Six Nations title earlier in 2015, there are a lot of experts who feel it is Ireland not England who stand the best chance of going all the way. After being handed a relatively kind draw alongside France, Italy, Canada and Romania in Pool D, Ireland will be confident of making it out of the group stage.
With 11 players selected in Ireland’s initial 45-man training squad, Ulster fans can expect to see a number of their players over the next few months. With Rory Best still one of the top hookers in the game, second-row duo Ian Henderson, Dan Tuohy, and flanker Chris Henry, much of the forward pack could be made up with Ulster players. With Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble expected to start on the wings, with the likes of Darren Cave and Jared Payne providing cover in the centres, Ireland head coach Josef Schmidt will be hoping these players can continue the form they showed for Ulster last year.
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Having put together a winning mix of both experienced and young players, Schmidt has seen his team upset the odds on plenty of occasions during his time in the role, and Ireland have all the attributes to beat any other team in the tournament on their day. Perennial World Cup quarter-finalists, Ireland haven’t historically been able to produce their best form on the game’s biggest stage. On the evidence of the past couple of Six Nations tournaments, though, Schmidt has installed the winning mentality that has possibly been missing from the previous Ireland squads in past World Cups, and this could well be their year.
Despite the fact England were pipped at the post by Ireland in the 2015 Six Nations, it’s Stuart Lancaster’s men who will start the World Cup as the northern hemisphere’s shortest priced team with odds of 9/2 at the time of writing with betfair. Much of this has come down to the impressive performances England put in throughout their Six Nations campaign, aside from their 19-9 defeat to Ireland. While it’s been 12 years since Jonny Wilkinson drop kicked the winning points that saw them win their one and only World Cup, if you believe the betting odds then it will be England battling it out with New Zealand for the title this year.
While Lancaster has assembled one of the youngest squads in world rugby, there are a number of experienced players that have been there and done that on the international stage. Someone who has been there and done it on the international stage is Sam Burgess – the problem is that it was in rugby league where the big Yorkshireman made his name. Now playing the 15-man game, the Bath player has been fast-tracked into the England set-up in the run-up to this World Cup, and there will be plenty of focus on Burgess to see whether he can prove he is deserving of his place.
There is a feeling that Wales’ best chance at winning a World Cup came four years ago. While Warren Gatland’s men made it through to the semi-final stage in New Zealand, even the most optimistic Welsh fan are struggling to see their team repeat that feat this year. On the back of their World Cup exploits in 2011, Wales went on to win back-to-back Six Nations during a period in which they dominated northern hemisphere rugby. It’s been a tough couple of years since then, though, and Gatland’s men aren’t heading into this tournament with the same sort of belief as they did in 2011.
But before writing off the Welsh, it’s important to note that there are a lot of the same players from the squad that reached the last four in 2011, most notably influential captain Sam Warburton. The flanker was sent off against France four years ago in the semi-finals, and Wales’ captain will have some wrongs to right in this year’s tournament. Playing in front of their own fans in two of their four group games, Warburton and his squad will be desperate to give the country something to cheer about after a modest couple of years.
Barring a complete collapse in reality, Scotland are going to find it tough/impossible to win the World Cup this year. Vern Cotter’s men have already been given a helping hand after being drawn alongside South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the United States in a Pool B in which the Scots really have to come through. From there, though, it’s tough to see how Scotland will be able to beat any of the world’s best teams. Having ended this year’s Six Nations with nothing more than the wooden spoon to their name, it would come as a relatively huge shock if we were hearing Flower of Scotland being sung before the final at Twickenham on October 31.