With Ireland’s first match in the Rugby World Cup just four weeks away, we take a look at star players who will be key to their Webb Ellis trophy prospects in Japan.
Regarded as one of the best scrumhalves in the world, there are few weaknesses evident in the 30-year-old’s game with crisp passing, unselfish decision-making, accurate box kicking and voracious work-rate at the centre of his broad skillset. Murray will need to be at his immaculate best if Ireland are to break the glass ceiling and reach a first World Cup semi-final.
The 34-year-old’s form has been called into question in recent months but, when firing, he can cause serious damage with ball in hand. He is feisty, intelligent, an excellent decision maker and his kicking will be key to Ireland’s attack in Japan. He isn’t World Player of the Year for nothing, but needs to be at his very best in Japan.
The 23-year-old may only be in his third year in professional rugby but Ryan is developing into a leader and his physicality can set the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown. At 6’7, the line-out is his obvious chief strength, but away from that he puts in a serious shift to get on the ball and put teammates in favourable attacking positions. The Leinster man can get around the field like a six-litre Maserati and always steps up against elite opposition.
The Ulster man has established himself as one of the best wingers in world rugby over the past 18 months. With 14 tries in 20 matches, the 23-year-old will be one of the key players that Joe Schmidt will be looking towards for inspiration this autumn. At 6ft 3in, the Lurgan man possesses pace, power and a reliability under the high ball, but his defence still needs work. Although he is some way off his 2018 form, Japan is the perfect time to turn it around and prove people wrong.
A class act. The 26-year-old is one of the inspirational leaders of an industrious Ireland front row alongside Cian Healy. The Leinster man shows up all over the pitch and is fearless in the tight areas. On his day he sets the standard for every prop in world rugby.
A 42-point record defeat to England, Joe Schmidt’s worst loss in 69 matches as head coach, eight tries conceded, 34 missed tackles, concerns over Cian Healy’s ankle and doubts over Johnny Sexton. All of this four weeks out from the Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.
But Irish fans shouldn’t panic yet. For all the talk about the Men in Green hitting their peak ten months ago that it is something that won’t be known until after the World Cup itself.
Every team is at different stages of their preparation ahead of rugby’s global showpiece. In addition to that, coaches are trialling different tactics, different players and different combinations in a bid to hit the ground running in Japan next month.
And despite Saturday’s comprehensive 57-15 defeat, Ireland, to their defence, had travelled straight from Faro to London after eight days of gruelling warm-weather training.
Heavy legs and a large volume of workload in the lead up to the match, no doubt, would have contributed to a poor display at Twickenham.
But Schmidt is known to be one of the leading coaches in world rugby with his meticulous attention to detail and planning. The man always has a plan. It is hoped that, despite a disappointing 2019 to date, he is holding something back for the World Cup.
You don’t go from being one of the best in the world to a bad team overnight.
2018 signified arguably the greatest year in Irish rugby history: a Six Nations Grand Slam, first test series victory in Australia for almost 40 years and November’s fully deserved toppling of the All Blacks made the Men in Green become genuine World Cup contenders.
In a relatively easy qualifying group with Scotland, Russia, Japan and Samoa, it is the opener against the Scots that is likely to shape the fate of the pool, with the winner potentially playing a resurgent South Africa in the quarter-finals and the loser taking on New Zealand.
Schmidt will name his 31-man squad for the World Cup before the final warm-up match against Wales in Dublin next week. The starting XV, though, picks itself barring injury.
Captain Rory Best leads the side from hooker, despite increased scrutiny about his place in the team after the commanding loss to England.
On either side of the Ulsterman, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong will bring all their power and skill to set the physical tone at scrum and maul time.
Behind them, Devin Toner and the influential James Ryan provide huge industry and work-rate to the line-out and open play. Along with Healy, 23-year-old Ryan was Ireland’s star man last season.
In the back-row, Peter O’Mahony needs to step up after a number of recent sub-par displays in an Ireland shirt. The ever-reliable Josh van der Flier will wear the number seven jersey, with Jack Conan potentially putting pressure on CJ Stander for the number eight berth.
Form would suggest the Leinster man deserves a chance after a stellar year for the 2018 Champions Cup winners.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may not be fizzing on the same elevated levels of last year, but a temporary dip in form and injuries have curtailed their normal majestic influence.
Come Japan, the buzz and pressure of a World Cup environment should spur them on.
Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will solidify the midfield, providing a fresh cutting edge to the attack while also showing serious physically in defence. Ringrose, in particular, will be hoping to put a forgettable campaign behind him.
Out wide, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls will cement both wing slots and the solid Rob Kearney will add all his 90-caps of experience to the 15 jersey. Stockdale, with 14 tries in 20 matches, is the danger man but needs to improve on his defensive reads and positioning.
Reaching a first-ever World Cup semi-final would inspire a nation and bring the curtain down on Schmidt’s illustrious seven years as Ireland coach which has been the most successful period for rugby on the Emerald Isle.
Confidence may be low for Irish rugby fans after a poor season so far, but in a World Cup year, the only thing that is important is the World Cup itself.
It’s a game of patience, and even a promising performance and an avoidance of injury against Wales over the next two weeks could change the gloomy narrative around this team and put them back on track for a grand finale in Japan.
Nickname(s): Men in Green
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Most caps: Brian O’Driscoll (133)
Top scorer: Ronan O’Gara (1,093)
Top try scorer: Brian O’Driscoll (46)
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Scotland (September 22), Japan (September 28), Russia (October 3), Samoa (October 12)
A recent drop in form has seen Northampton Saints prop Owen Franks miss out on selection as New Zealand named the squad tasked to win an unprecedented third straight Rugby World Cup.
Franks, 31, will not contest his third tournament in Japan this year after a poor showing in his final season for the Canterbury Crusaders before signing with the Premiership Rugby side.
The tighthead, who has played 108 Tests for his country, was replaced in the front row by 24-year-old Atu Moli of the Waikato Chiefs.
Powerful centre Ngani Laumape, 26, and experienced back-rower Liam Squire, 28, also missed out on spots on the plane.
Coach Steve Hansen preferred four centres ahead of Laumape – Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty – with the latter three picked despite recent injuries.
Squire was not picked after injuries kept him out of Test rugby this year, with Hansen instead selecting one-cap flanker Luke Jacobson.
A dislocated shoulder suffered in New Zealand’s Rugby Championship draw with South Africa means lock Brodie Retallick, 28, will not play in pool matches in Japan but is expected to be passed fit for the knockout stages.
Richie Mo’unga has been named as the All Blacks’ starting fly-half, where the 25-year-old will continue his potent playmaking combination from the previous three Tests with full-back Beauden Barrett.
Interestingly, Hansen has also named three non-specialist fly-halves in centres Ryan Crotty and Jordie Barrett and half-back TJ Perenara.
Back-rower Kieran Read, 33, will lead the squad to his first World Cup as captain, with longstanding utility back Ben Smith, 33, picked as his deputy.
Read, Williams and lock Sam Whitelock will all be participating in their third iteration of rugby’s premier competition, but Hansen has overall preferred youth with 19 of the 31-man squad tournament debutants.
Hansen said: “This Rugby World Cup looks like being the most fiercely-contested yet with a large number of teams all believing they can win.
“This will bring possibly more pressure and expectation on them than ever before and it will be interesting to see who can and who can’t cope with it.”
New Zealand’s tournament begins against South Africa in Yokahama on September 21.
Provided by Press Association Sport