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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
Expectation high for Irish
By Jim Stokes

With just two defeats in the last 17 matches, many believe Ireland could be one of the surprise packets in the chase for the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

Ulster's David Humphreys is Ireland's laeding points scorer
David Humphreys will be a key man for Ireland during the World Cup
But do not say it too loudly. Even the International Rugby Board's new ranking list has Ireland third, and not a bad bet if you fancy a little wager.

Somehow, I doubt whether Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan will be putting much onus on that list.

Outwardly he will be glad to see that recent results have been well rewarded by the power from above, but deep inside he knows only too well that reaching the last four in the World Cup will be proof of their sudden rise in stature.

Unfortunately, the rather inflated position will not sit happily on Ireland's shoulders. It never does.

That despite a 10-match winning sequence, which included the prize scalps of Australia, Argentina and France, that has sent Irish hopes and ambitions soaring.

But remember, when it came to the crunch, O'Sullivan's men came up well short, and crushing back-to-back defeats by England and the Wallabies quickly brought expectations back down to more realistic levels.

The loss of Gerodan Murphy, Rob Henderson and Jonny Bell has not helped Ireland's chances of going further than they have done since the start of the competition back in 1987.

Ireland have never felt comfortable in the role of favourites and it would suit them fine to be regarded as one of at least 16 World Cup underdogs.

Under O'Sullivan, a coach of supreme organisational skills who has just received the boost of a new extended four-year contract, Ireland have come a long way from giving it a lash as former mentor Mick Doyle termed his strategy.

Gone is the traditional reliance on a solid pack of forwards that brought their opponents down to their level and ensured an old-fashioned slugging match.

No more of that. Ireland have some gifted backs, although the lose of Geordan Murphy will have severely cut down their options.

Ireland are a more rounded and finished article, but so are Argentina

But in Brian O'Driscoll and Denis Hickie they have two players who do not need an introduction to the try line.

Both are chasing Ireland's try record. Hickie holds it at present with 20 after his four-try burst against Italy at the end of August. O'Driscoll, though, is not happy and with two fewer will be determined to surpass his great friend and rival.

Ireland's hopes, though, will hinge on the display of their fly-half and the propensity of good, speedy possession from their pack.

David Humphreys has been in charge of the number 10 jersey for most of the year, and he will be wear it in the big games in the World Cup, although Ronan O'Gara might get a run in the games against Namibia and Romania.

As far as Ireland are concerned the big game that will decide their progress into the knock-out stages will be the pivotal tie against Argentina on 26 October at the Adelaide Oval.

Ireland have been never gone any further than the quarter-final stage and in 1999 they never even got to the last eight after losing in dramatic fashion to the Pumas in Lens.

O'Sullivan will probably use three different teams in the qualifying stages. Warm-up sides against Romania and Namibia, while a more physical pack against the Pumas will be the order of the day.

Gary Longwell and Mal O'Kelly along with Victory Costello, Eric Miller and Alan Quinlan will feature in the back five.

Against the Wallabies, Keith Gleeson, Simon Easterby, and Paul O'Connell may be utilised in what will be quicker game above ground.

Ireland captain Keith Wood tasted defeat against Argentina in Lens
Keith Wood will lead Ireland in battle in the World Cup

The group of death is a well-worn cliche, but perming two from three in Pool A will not be easy.

Under O'Sullivan, though, Ireland are a more rounded and finished article. But on the other hand, so are Argentina, who proved with two wins over France this summer, that they are as dangerous as ever.

Defending champions Australia are also in the Pool A grouping, but their once infallibility is looking a little ragged at the edges with many believing that they may not qualify. I don't think so.

By the time the competition gets under way, Eddie Jones will have the Wallabies jumping through hoops.

They will qualify, so it looks like another crunching battle between the Irish and their 1999 nemesis Argentina for the other spot.

Realistically, Ireland must fancy their chances to get through as runners-up and that would almost certainly set them up with a belated quarter-final with France.

If Ireland win that, then there is the possibility of a mouth-watering date with England in the semi-finals.

Now that would prove that the IRB are not stark raving mad with their rankings.





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