Brian O’Driscoll believes Ireland can back up their World No.1 ranking by winning the Rugby World Cup in Japan. The 133-times capped centre says the ranking is ‘nice’ – but lifting the Webb Ellis Cup is the be all and end all for Joe Schmidt’s men.
Ireland’s win over Wales in Dublin lifted them to the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time, leapfrogging World Cup favourites New Zealand.
“It won’t put any pressure on them,” O’Driscoll said. “It’s a nice added incentive to have as a team. It’s nice to tick all those boxes over the course of a few years as you’ve been climbing to prominence which is what this team have done over the past four years.
“Winning a series inAustralia for the first time in years. Winning a test in South Africa. Beating the All Blacks. Another Grand Slam. The Six Nations titles. All those things have added up. They won’t pay that much heed to the ranking but it’s nice to say that at one point, you were part of an Irish team that was number one in the world.
Irrespective of whether you think the rankings are right or wrong, it’s nice to be there for a few weeks heading into the World Cup.
Following a disappointing Six Nations and their record defeat to England three weeks ago, Ireland are fourth favourites with bookmakers to lift the trophy in Yokohama in early November, but O’Driscoll is adamant they can do it.
“I absolutely think they can win it but they need a lot to go for them,” he said, announcing Guinness as the official sponsor of belief. “But on the basis of what I’ve watched in the last two years, they can win the World Cup.
“They can win that group, beat South Africa or New Zealand. It’s a big ask but they can beat them. Then you’re in a semi-final against Wales or Australia or England. We’ve beaten all those teams. So on the basis of that I do believe. It’s the first World Cup Ireland have entered that they know they have beaten all the teams in it. And there’s a confidence that comes with that.”
Looking ahead to the tournament that begins in under two weeks, the 133-times capped Ireland legend, expects that the team lifting the Webb Ellis Cup might not be one that has thrilled and entertained more than any other.
“If you look at the teams that have won the World Cup they’re incredibly workmanlike,” he said. “Australia’s two wins were a little different because they’d fantastic backs, they’d real magic, whereas you look at England, South Africa, New Zealand – a lot of it is simple collision based winning.
“Yes there’s a lot of skill involved, but if you look at how things are shaping up now with those sort of games, that’s why I think people are talking about South Africa and England, because it looks like the dynamic of their squads are very suited to what has previously won World Cups.”
The inclusion of heavyweights like Jean Kleyn, Rhys Ruddock, and Chris Farrell indicates Schmidt might be thinking the same way. O’Driscoll insists any team hoping to win the World Cup will need to cope with losing players over the course of the tournament’s seven weeks.
Joey Carbery has been the only injury concern from Ireland’s four warm up games, but he and Keith Earls, who took a knock to the knee on Saturday, will both be on the plane to Tokyo tomorrow.
It’s a more than decent return for Schmidt, who will have been anxious about his squad’s health ahead of the four games against Italy, England and Wales, and the tournament schedule has also been kind to the New Zealander – with Ireland’s toughest Pool games up first.
“One big aspect thus far, and hopefully it remains that way, is that the injury profile remains pretty healthy,” O’Driscoll said.
“We did lose a couple of sevens earlier in the year, but we are in pretty good health from a fitness point of view. The reality is that Ireland need their top players firing and staying fit.
It’s the perfect group provided you start well. Getting the big two games out of the way early on and then having the opportunity to get yourself ready. Without disrespect to Russia and Samoa, but you can put time and effort into what is likely to happen in a quarter-final.
“If you have two wins in two games, you’re in great shape and you have an opportunity to look after those key individuals and play-makers – and we need them. We can’t do what some other teams have done and survive while losing multiple out-halves as New Zealand did in 2011. We can’t do that. We need Johnny [Sexton] and we need him firing. It’s a good starting point.
“You might have said we could lose three or four players with injuries this month. We’ve lost Joey Carbery for a period and then had a slight problem for Keith Earls so that is a good outcome.”
Should Ireland get past Scotland and Japan as expected, Schmidt could hand almost 20 days rest to his front line players ahead of the quarter-final – and they’ll need it, according to O’Driscoll.
“If you were to get to a World Cup final, you’ll lose some bodies in six games at World Cup level because World Cup rugby is different to Six Nations,” he said. “This is the ultimate, where teams are playing for their lives, representing their country once every four years.
“Even my final World Cup in 2011 I thought the intensity went through the roof. The minnows aren’t being thrashed by 90-100 points anymore, now a 50 points win over Namibia or Russia is a good score, whereas previously if you look back to early World Cups, you had New Zealand beating Japan 145-17 back in 1995.
“Those days feel as though they’re behind us because everyone’s improved.”