By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — It’s now typical of the professionalization of rugby. An Irishman coaching the USA Eagles is plotting the downfall of Ireland, who is coached by a New Zealander. That’s the mix for Saturday’s World Cup opener at Lansdowne Road.
If the big guns of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England look likely to contend for the major honors, Ireland have a realistic chance of making the semifinals this time. But first, they have to see off the USA.
That’s how Eddie O’Sullivan, one of the Eagles’ assistant coaches, will be up against former All Black Warren Gatland, who has been masterminding Irish fortunes for the last 18 months.
Despite several hugely disappointing performances during his 16 games in charge, Gatland has his eye on a place in the last four. In fact, the Irish can afford to lose to Australia in the pool stages and still make a big impact in this the fourth rugby World Cup.
If Gatland’s team see off the challenge of the U.S. and Romania in Pool E, then Ireland go to Lens, France, for a quarterfinal playoff against the best third-place team from the five pools. If they win there, the French then provide the opposition in a quarterfinal scheduled for Lansdowne Road.
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Even if the recent record against France does not make for pleasant reading, the French have just gone through one of the worst seasons in their history, and the fact that Ireland have home advantage could see them pulling off a surprise success.
Meanwhile, O’Sullivan doesn’t expect great things from the Eagles, who played in the 1987 and ’91 tournaments. "We’re still essentially an amateur squad," he said, "and, if anything, the gap between us and the more established countries has widened since the first World Cup. Realistically, we’re aiming to beat Romania and be competitive against Australia and Ireland."
The U.S.’s preparations haven’t exactly been ideal. Crushed 106-8 by a rampant England and then well beaten by Wales’ second string, morale isn’t exactly sky high.
However, the Eagles do have a world-class forward in Dan Lyle, and O’Sullivan, who has also coached Connacht, Blackrock, Buccaneers and Ireland’s Under 21 squad, is adamant there will be no repeat performance of the humiliation by England.
Despite having lost badly to Australia at the end of last month, New Zealand remain strong favorites to win the tournament for a second time. Australia represent the main challenge, with South Africa less of a force than last
season. England are Europe’s leading team, but Wales maybe the dark horse after eight successive wins.World Cup breakdown
South Africa, Scotland, Uruguay, Spain
New Zealand, England, Italy, Tonga
France, Canada, Namibia, Fiji
Wales, Argentina, Samoa, Japan
Australia, Ireland, USA, Romania
€ The five pool winners qualify automatically for quarterfinals
€ The five pool runners-up and best third-placed team qualify for playoffs