Sport

Roy Curtis answers seven big questions ahead of the Rugby World Cup

SportBy Roy Curtis
Paul O'Connell takes on England, but will the sides meet again over the next seven weeks?
Paul O'Connell takes on England, but will the sides meet again over the next seven weeks?

We asked Sunday World Chief Sports Writer Roy Curtis for his expert views on the eager­ly-awaited Rugby World Cup which kicks-off on Friday.

And for those of you who believe Ireland can go on to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the first time, he delivers a damning prediction of imminent failure for Joe Schmidt and the boys.

Here are his views on how the tour­nament will pan out...

1 – WHO WILL WIN THE WORLD CUP?

New Zealand. From a final four of Australia, England, France and the All Blacks, the defending champions – whose strength in depth is such that they could leave superstars Israel Dagg and Corey Jane out of their squad of 31 – will defeat Stuart Lancaster’s hosts in the decider to become the first nation to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on three occasions.

2 – HOW FAR WILL IRELAND GO?

Ireland will deliver the house special – a quarter-final exit. The only one of the world’s top nine teams never to have reached the last four, a pool loss to France will set up an elite-eight tussle with New Zealand.

And given Ireland’s calam­itous record against rugby’s most storied force – over the course of 110 years of combat it reads: Played 28, Won 0, with a points deficit of 502 – that should be good night and God bless.

3 – WHAT WOULD BE YOUR PREFERRED IRISH STARTING XV?

Dave Kearney has made a compelling case to be included, Tommy Bowe has used up all his penalty points and has to go; Sean Cronin and Iain Henderson are two dynamic, ball-carrying springers. If he’s fit, Cian Healy plays. My team would read: R. Kearney; Zebo, Payne, Henshaw, D. Kearney; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Cronin, Ross; Henderson, O’Connell; O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip.

4 – WHAT ARE IRELAND’S STRENGTHS?

An astute coach in Joe Schmidt, a battled-hardened dual Six Na­tions winning side, a strong half-back combination and a soft draw.

5 – WHAT ARE IRELAND’S WEAKNESSES?

A sudden depres­surising of the cabin has seen them rapidly lose altitude in recent weeks.

Their form – with Bowe merely the worst offender – is awful. Jamie Heaslip has laboured, Sexton (below, left) has yet to move through the gears.

Ireland’s overly-structured attack lacks variety – they don’t score enough tries. And the ease with which they are being burgled – a missed tackle count of 72 in three games against England (twice) and France – suggests Joe needs to get on the phone to Eircom Phone Watch.

6 – WHO IS THE IRISH PLAYER TO WATCH?

Iain Henderson, 6’6”, 18st 3lb. A Panzer tank with afterburners, the 22-year-old can emerge as a global superstar. All it requires is Schmidt to pick him ahead of the labouring Devin Toner.

7 – WHO ARE YOUR ‘PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT’ CONTENDERS?

Israel Folau (Australia): A magnificent freak of nature who has excelled at Aus­tralian Rules and both rugby codes.

Yohan Huget (France): A dancing dia­mond on the wing. Frightening combina­tion of power and panache.

Dan Carter (New Zealand): He’s 33 now, but delivered a stinging rebuke to those who deemed him past it in an Eden Park exhibition against Australia that emphasised he remains the alpha male of out-halves.