- 28 Sep 07, 07:53 PM
Paris - It’s time to go now. The Irish squad did not shed too many tears as they headed north-east from Bordeaux to Paris today. For them it marked a place of unhappiness, of isolation, of rumour and counter-rumour, and most of all, of lousy rugby. Yes, the train to the French capital will be seen as a release of sorts, even if what awaits them there on Sunday is fraught with pitfalls.
So after three weeks of under-achievement, of negativity, and navel-gazing, here’s some optimism. Misplaced optimism maybe, but optimism nevertheless. Feel free to add to the list. Here’s why Ireland can qualify for the quarter-finals:
1. The Munster factor: These boys know how to pull rabbits out of hats. The miracle match at Thomond Park, Heineken Cup v Gloucester 2003… Munster needed to score four tries and win by 27 points to qualify for the quarter-finals. They won 33-6, with John Kelly’s try in the last minute allowing O’Gara to convert, to seal the deal. It’s not the only time they’ve done it either…. Against Sale in the Heineken Cup of 2006, Munster needed a win with a bonus point, and to deny the Premiership team one themselves. All was duly delivered with a 31-9 victory – this time David Wallace grabbing the fourth try in injury time. It’s high risk rugby, but hey, when it works, it sure does lift the spirit. Eight of this team play for Munster. Seven of them in the pack. Some of those played in both matches. They have fire in the belly, ice in the veins. This is the single biggest factor weighing in Ireland’s favour.
2. Expectation: Most of Ireland’s fans have written this one off, if those here in France are to be believed. They’re hoping for – some even expecting – a gripping thriller, edged by the boys in green. But not many actually believe Ireland can win by more than seven points and score four tries in the process. It may be a well-worn cliché, but these are precisely the conditions in which Ireland have prevailed, in years gone by. Argentina by contrast are solid favourites. The pressure is on, the country expects. They’ve been watertight so far, but this is the biggest game in their history. Their rugby futures depend on the outcome. Victory, and they play Scotland (most likely) for a place in the semi-final. It’s massive for them. They are in the shop window, rightly demanding inclusion in top-tier tournaments. There will be South American jitters.
3. Ronan O’Gara: He just can’t play so badly four matches in succession. Whatever’s eating him, it probably still is, but the law of averages suggests he’ll come good. Expect the lazily-rolled touch-finders early on, the miss-passes fired wide to release the three-quarters, and the odd darting break. O’Gara’s 30 years old. He’s unlikely to reach the next World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. He’s overdue a blinder, and he knows it.
4. Simon Best: The unexpected trump card. Playing for a stricken mate can be a powerful spur. Best’s trials this week have put everything in context for this lot. It’ll mean they go out determined to seize the moment. His health is uppermost in their minds of course, but the knowledge that he’s watching in hospital, his World Cup over, will focus the minds of those charged with producing the goods.
5. The Parc des Princes: OK, this is a spurious one perhaps, but worth a thought. This is a good old-fashioned rugby stadium. Yes, many of the Argentinians play here regularly with Stade Francais, but this is a place where the Irish fans could play a role. It’s not a giant bowl like the Stade De France, where the supporters are miles from the pitch (though the view is amazing from anywhere). It’s a living, breathing bearpit where fans can make their presence felt. Remember those vibrant scenes from the 80’s with Camberabero and Blanco running riot, as the French cockerel strutted pitchside? This is a place where Ireland can flourish. It’s incumbent on the fans to turn it into a home game. Intimidate Argentina, and use the intoxicating atmosphere to play with adventure and freedom. It can be done.
There, I’ve now convinced myself. What about you?
Alastair Eykyn is a Radio 5 live reporter specialising in rugby union, tennis and hockey. He is covering Ireland at the World Cup and you can see 5 live's full broadcast schedule here.