Rugby World Cup: Ireland's five key players

Rugby World Cup: Ireland's five key players

Despite back-to-back losses against Wales and England, Ireland enter rugby’s global showpiece in rude health with a deep squad and tested combinations.

However, Joe Schmidt’s two-time defending RBS Six Nations champions have a dreary history of under-achieving on the biggest stage, having never gone beyond the World Cup quarter-finals.

This century, the 2003 side were blown away by a French blizzard inspired by their back-row colossus Olivier Magne, as Les Bleus galloped to an irretrievable 27-0 half-time lead on skipper Keith Wood’s international swansong in Melbourne.

In 2007, with coach Eddie O’Sullivan widely tipped to be the next British & Irish Lions head coach, those lofty ambitions were cruelly thwarted as Ireland limped out in the group phase, only scraping wins against minnows Namibia and Georgia.

Four years on, Brian O’Driscoll’s men couldn’t match a belligerent Welsh team in the last eight having bullied Australia off the park in a brilliant 15-6 pool stage win.

Can 2015 be any different? Here are five players who are focal to Irish prosperity.

Paul O’Connell

Paul O'Connell, Ireland's captain, will join Toulon after the Rugby World Cup [Picture: Inpho] Paul O'Connell, Ireland's captain [Picture: Inpho]

The 35-year-old veteran marked his 104th Ireland Test appearance with a typically uncompromising try against England and he still forms the epicentre of a fearful-looking Irish scrum alongside man-mountain Devin Toner in the second row.

The age-defying lock has tasted Six Nations success, captained the Lions and was part of Gatland’s victorious 2013 touring side, but the thing he craves most is World Cup glory.

Limerick’s green giant may be understated and jovial off the pitch but he commands respect and exudes authority on it; bossing the line-out and dominating the breakdown. So often, his unmistakable cranium bobs and weaves amidst a sea of emerald jerseys, as he rumbles towards the opposition try line as the fulcrum of their formidable rolling maul.

O’Connell may be retiring from international duty at the close of the tournament and trading his beloved Thomond Park for the stunning surrounds of Toulon’s Stade Mayol after 15 years of loyal service next season, but the Irish skipper still leads by belligerent example. He is their lynchpin and leader. Simply put, if O’Connell clicks, so do Ireland.

Sean O’Brien

Sean O'Brien [Picture: Inpho] Sean O'Brien [Picture: Inpho]
When England captain Chris Robshaw didn’t even make the Lions touring party to Australia with the British & Irish Lions in 2013, let alone the Test team, you know options are plentiful. Lions coach Warren Gatland had a stellar back row to choose from, and so does Schmidt.

It seems far from a coincidence that when the Emerald Isle’s master of the breakdown, Sean O’Brien, left the field against New Zealand in November 2013, Ireland failed to convert a 19-0 first-half lead into a maiden win over the All Blacks.

Around 14 months on the sideline followed until Ireland’s finest ball-poacher returned to action to skipper the Irish Wolfhounds against the England Saxons on a wind-swept Friday night in Cork last January. O’Brien didn’t last the whole game but his impact was obvious as the Irish pulverised the England scrum in the opening 40 minutes.

His significance was again in evidence at Twickenham when, despite losing 21-13 in their final pre-World Cup clash, the Irish looked a far more assured unit than they’d been in Dublin the week previous, when Wales dominated that increasingly critical facet of the game.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has recently demonstrated just how important he deems a vintage open side flanker to be; he has two in his starting XV. Not many teams will be able to better Australia’s supreme back row scavengers David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the breakdown, but Ireland, who also have Leinster and Munster captains, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O’Mahony to compliment O’Brien in the back row, have the potential to match and better them. Keeping O’Brien injury-free is crucial for Ireland.

Conor Murray

Conor Murray [Picture: Inpho] Conor Murray [Picture: Inpho]
Just as Mike Phillips had done four years previously in South Africa, Conor Murray’s coming out party came on the grand stage of a thrilling Lions series in 2013. The Ireland No. 9 established himself as a truly elite half-back in Australia when expertly steering the Lions to a first series victory since 1997.

Murray’s extreme physicality and supreme kicking game also brilliantly frustrated England in Dublin earlier this year. The relentless aerial bombardment served up to England’s back three in that Six Nations clash, vividly demonstrated his value to the Irish cause.

His sniping run helped produce the game’s only try for Robbie Henshaw in Ireland’s emphatic 19-9 win at the Aviva Stadium. Murray’s superb tactical kicking pinned England back at every opportunity, thwarting any chance of a first English Grand Slam since Martin Johnson’s men stormed Lansdowne Road 42-6 in 2003.

After an early injury scare in their final hit-out against England, Schmidt took no chances with his star scrum half, ushering in Eoin Reddin, following a hefty collision. However, Murray should be fit for Ireland’s opener against Canada in Cardiff and as the stand-out No. 9 in the Northern Hemisphere, the Irish need him fit and firing if they’re to mount a serious claim to the William Webb-Ellis Cup.

Jonathan Sexton

Jonathan Sexton [Picture: Inpho] Jonathan Sexton [Picture: Inpho]
Whilst not underplaying the obvious talents of Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, Johnny Sexton is arguably the player Ireland can least do without this autumn. The mercurial fly-half has established himself as the stand-out 10 in the Northern Hemisphere over the last four-year cycle.

His stellar kicking game has ensured a seamless transition from Ireland’s previous incumbent, Ronon O’Gara, but endowed with more natural attacking flair than his illustrious predecessor. Sexton’s brilliant game management was pivotal to Leinster’s European Cup dynasty and prompted Racing Metro president Jacky Lorenzetti to splash the cash and poach Sexton from the Pro 12 two seasons ago.

His French sojourn may not have been an unmitigated success due to injury concerns and initial difficulties with a foreign language and culture, but since overcoming persistent concussion problems, which prompted a 12-week lay-off after the autumn internationals, Sexton found his feet in Paris last season. That this fruitful period coincided with the announcement that Leinster had re-signed Sexton on a four-year deal from this season, seemed to liberate Sexton and revitalise his game.

Although his fine late season form failed to land Racing a first domestic crown since 1990, Sexton’s exploits were fully appreciated by the local faithful. His consistently excellent recent form for Ireland helped them beat both South Africa and Australia in the autumn, no doubt owes a lot to the unique relationship he shares with Schmidt, who oversaw Sexton’s prodigious development at Leinster before leaving for the IRFU in 2013. He is arguably Ireland’s most influential player and with Sexton orchestrating proceedings, Ireland’s hopes of achieving sporting immortality next month are infinitely better.

Rob Kearney

Rob Kearney [Picture: Inpho] Rob Kearney [Picture: Inpho]
To win a World Cup, you must have an assured full-back who can assess and read a game instinctively, be supremely comfortable under the high ball and possess an assured kicking game to clear his lines. Think Matt Burke in 1999, Josh Lewsey in 2003, Percy Montgomery in 2007 and the mercurial Israel Dagg in 2011.

Fortunately for Ireland, Rob Kearney fits the bill perfectly. The Leinster stalwart was utterly brilliant in South Africa when awarded the No. 15 Lions Test jersey in 2009 and although he was usurped at full back by Leigh Halfpenny in 2013, this owed more to sporadic injury problems than any significant loss of form.

Kearney sat out the England clash as a precautionary measure rather than any serious injury concern following a minor knee complaint. He may have an able understudy in Simon Zebo, but in terms of big match pedigree, the electrifying wing-come full-back cannot claim parity with the tried and tested qualities that Kearney effortlessly oozes. He has been an ever-present in Leinster’s trio of European Cup successes and Ireland look a more complete side with his brilliant kick and chase game.

With 66 Test caps won for Ireland and the Lions, Kearney has the necessary big-game experience to heavily influence World Cup proceedings, and at still just 29 years of age, is in his prime. Ireland’s hopes may not rest on him, but they look far more luminous with him.