Jeremy Guscott has thrown cold water on Ireland’s chances of a best-ever World Cup performance.
The former England star-turned-pundit says Joe Schmidt’s men are “out of sorts” and “miles away” from where they were in beating New Zealand last November.
Ireland would have to beat either the All Blacks or South Africa to secure a semi-final spot but Guscott doesn’t think that’s likely.
“You have to say that with not many of their top players playing as well as they can there are now big question marks over their ability to do so,” said Guscott in his column for The Rugby Paper.
“It is not so much a question of what they are capable of doing, as it is of where they are in terms of form going into this tournament. At the moment they look miles away from where they were when they beat New Zealand last autumn in Dublin.”
While acknowledging that Ireland were without James Ryan and Johnny Sexton for their record 57-15 defeat to England last month, after which they’ve beaten Wales home and away, Guscott has questioned whether Sexton is still Ireland’s best out-half.
“The main focus on Sexton now is whether he can play the full 80 minutes regularly in Japan or whether he will continue to be hampered by injuries.
“We do not know whether Joey Carbery is fully fit again as cover for Sexton at 10, but there’s a lot to like about him. He makes breaks, kicks goals, and runs the game well.
I can remember when Irish coaches were criticised for holding on to Ronan O’Gara for too long rather than playing Sexton, and now maybe it’s the same with Sexton and Carbery.
He also wonders whether captain Rory Best is “about to fall off the cliff” and criticised CJ Stander for “disappearing”.
“The Munster No.8 made a huge impact with his carrying in the Irish win over New Zealand less than a year ago, but a few months later in the Six Nations against England his influence was minimal – and the same was true at Twickenham at the end of August.”
Guscott does offer some hope, saying: “I would not be surprised if the form that Ireland showed in beating New Zealand twice came back, because guys like Cian Healy, Best, [Tadhg] Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, [Conor] Murray, Sexton, Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Rob Kearney have been there, done it, and should know how to do it again.”
However, he concludes: “Fitness and defence are great blocks to build on in a World Cup, and I would not be surprised if Wales got to the final – whereas I’d be surprised if Ireland got past the quarter-finals.”