The Betway ambassador looks ahead to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France, with Ireland among the favourites to win the tournament.
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The World Cup is a special event
It’s a huge honour to represent your country in any game, but a World Cup is special.
I have some mixed emotions considering our exits in 2003 and 2007, which leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, but there’s something unique about the tournament.
When people ask me about my favourite tour, I always say the 2003 World Cup down in Australia. With the number of Irish people who lived there, the number of people who had travelled there, it was such a feel-good occasion.
You got a real sense of a community away from home, and that made it such a special event.
I think there’s a real feel-good factor about this World Cup, too. There’s a genuine belief that this team can go pretty far.
This Ireland team is different
When I was playing for Ireland, we always fancied our chances against the top teams in a one-off game.
But to win a World Cup you need to be on it every single week, and that was probably what we were lacking in terms of that experience of playing those top sides week in, week out.
We also didn’t really have the luxury of rotating our squad that much. We were confident in our top 15 or 20 players, whereas now you look at the squad and there’s real strength and depth there, which allows you to rotate your team a little bit more for Romania and Tonga.
When you’re playing for Ireland, it’s always in the back of your mind that we’ve never been past the quarter-finals. It’s got a bit of a stigma attached to it.
This team should be over that because they’re playing against these big teams more regularly and they’ve beaten them more often than not, so hopefully that kind of pressure will have left these guys.
Farrell has changed the attitude
I have huge amount of respect for Andy Farrell, and I think that’s what he’s brought to the squad. He’s brought that level of respect where he is liked by the players, but they want to play for him.
He’s brought a complete change of attitude to the way they play the game. Under Joe Schmidt it was very regimented, and it was all about accountability. There still is that accountability, but there’s not so much of a fear factor.
There are some really intelligent players out there, and he’s given them that licence and that freedom to play what’s in front of them. Yes, they have a structure, but they know they can back their fitness levels, their rugby IQ and their key decision makers.
That level of confidence and respect that Andy has for his players filters through, and they feel that as well. He’s totally changed things over the last few years.
Andy’s also got an unbelievable backroom team. I think that’s the mark of a really, really good coach, surrounding yourself with good guys like Mike Catt, Simon Easterby, Paul O’Connell and John Fogarty. Guys who are not just technically good in their positions, but know the game of rugby really, really well.
I can imagine in some of those coaches’ meetings, the ideas that are thrown around will be stuff that no other team in the world would be capable of coming up with given the intelligence levels in that room.
My key players
In the pack, I look at Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Caelan Doris as huge players for Ireland. Those three guys are a cornerstone in terms of physicality, ball carrying, and all-round ability.
In the backs, obviously Johnny Sexton, then I would pick Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan as the three who Ireland need on the field.
I’ve seen glimpses of when Hugo doesn’t play, and there’s just a little bit more pressure on your 10 being that first receiver. When Hugo and Garry play, they can take that pressure off by stepping up to that first receiver. They’re the two key guys in terms of playmaking.
Keeping Hugo fit, in particular, is massively important. I think we’ll see a lot of kicking because it’s all about winning matches, so teams will take points on offer, kick to the corners, look for those 50-22s. Keenan is the best in the world at the moment for me in that backfield as a cover, but also from an attacking point of view as well.
It just takes that pressure off Johnny, who’s obviously going to get some heat. Teams will realise the dependency that Ireland will have on Johnny as a player, as a leader, as a coach on the field, and Hugo can help alleviate that.
How far can Ireland go?
There’s no doubting the side of the draw that Ireland are on is just horrendous, with two of South Africa, Ireland, France, and New Zealand not making it past the quarter-finals.
I come up with different scenarios every time I think about it, but Ireland have every chance. When you look at each game in isolation, they can win them all, but it’s all about how you back it up in that World Cup environment.
Obviously, playing pool games against Scotland and South Africa brings more pressure. I think there’s a big win in Scotland in this tournament.
If Ireland can get past that quarter-final, whether it’s New Zealand or France, I wouldn’t put it past them winning the competition.
Either way, I think we’ll see both finalists come from that side of the draw.
World Cup predictions
South Africa is my gut feeling right now.
I’ll throw it out there – it’ll be an Ireland v South Africa final.
Top try scorer
Either Damian Penaud or Cheslin Kolbe, depending on which team progresses further.
New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and I’m going to throw one in the mix here, I’m going to say Fiji will win Pool C.
Fiji to beat Australia.