by Stephen Ferris.
I know a little about Rugby World Cups. Went to two tournaments. Played in one.
First rule of the 2007 World Cup is: You do not talk about the 2007 World Cup.
Second rule of the 2007 World Cup is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE 2007 WORLD CUP.
Credit: Donncha O’Callaghan (who stole the line off Brad Pitt).
Can Ireland win the 2019 version in Japan?
Course we can.
Can we get past the quarter-final for the first time in our history?
Yes, we can.
Will it be ridiculously difficult to do?
Bet on it, but also look at all the monkeys this team flung off their backs in 2018. Winning a test series in Australia, Grand Slam in Twickenham…
We were never supposed to beat the All Blacks in Dublin. Now, everyone in the Aviva stadium and watching on TV felt a part of that seven-point hiding. It really was a comfortable victory. Even when they came hunting for a try late on, Ireland’s defence remained in control.
I’d love to have been coached by Andy Farrell. I played against him when I was in an Ulster jersey and every time we cross paths now – usually on the sideline before Ireland games – there is a small nod. He must know a little of my work. I certainly know his. I liked my Rugby League growing up. What a durable specimen he was.
It’s at the back end of the tackle that Farrell has players working hardest. In particular, watch how James Ryan and Iain Henderson do it – sweep the legs and blast through the ruck. He has them physically tuned-up for every game.
To sit above the pitch in the RTÉ studio watching the boys celebrate at full-time after beating New Zealand was incredible. I’ve never seen Rory Best jump so high.
Beating these All Blacks on home soil was momentous. “Irish rugby has come of age,” said Eddie O’Sullivan, my old coach.
Me and Eddie didn’t always agree but, on this occasion, he was spot on.
Ireland know how to beat everyone now and we’ll need to prove that in Japan, because to win the tournament South Africa and New Zealand will needing sorting out. And another heavyweight rugby nation in the semi-final. Oh, Scotland and the hosts are in our Pool too!
The difference between the best Ireland team I played on and this version is simple – consistency.
I played in some very good sides. Won a Grand Slam in 2009. Beat Australia at Eden Park in 2011.
Great days but we struggled to back them up.
Another obvious improvement is squad depth. Our starting XV under Deccie Kidney could be named weeks in advance. There were certain players we couldn’t do without… O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Hayes, Stringer, O’Gara, D’Arcy, O’Callaghan, Me, Seanie and Jamie.
Everyone knew the line-up until Johnny Sexton came along.
Nowadays, I’m arguing with people about five or six positions. In a good way. What will Joe do? Who will he keep on the leash? Back then, we didn’t have that option. Remove John Hayes and there was a crisis in Irish rugby.
The level of coaching is something else. That’s not to say our coaches were bad – they weren’t – but these guys are the best in the world. If Joe Schmidt was over us in 2011 anything would have been possible. Now, anything is possible under Joe, Andy Farrell and Simon Easterby.
The strategy they come up with to beat teams is always novel and fascinating to watch from the television studio.
I’m still only 33 but rugby was shelved almost five years ago. You don’t want me going back into all the injuries from the abrasive way I played the game.
”It was a good career that got cut short way too soon for my liking, but such is life.
I miss it, but the knee is killing me this morning. I need to get it looked at again, so I can climb Mount Kilimanjaro next year to raise funds for the IRFU charitable thrust.
Rugby has gone to another level in terms of professionalism since I stepped away. Definitely since my Ulster debut in 2005. Worlds apart.
Even at the 2007 World Cup we still went out and partied after games. That didn’t do much harm. It’s important to get to know each other but the old school way still existed. That’s gone the last three, four years and with that change has come consistency. Recovery is as professional now as all other aspects of the game.
So, who else can win the World Cup?
It’s brilliant to see the world rankings at the moment: 1 New Zealand, 2 Ireland, 3 Wales, 4 England.
Wales have a real chance this time. England, who knows? November gives Eddie Jones some momentum.
South Africa and New Zealand will be contenders. One of them will be Ireland’s opposition in the quarter-final.
Let’s presume it’s South Africa. I’d back Ireland to beat them but it’s the weight of history that worries me.
”We've never reached a semi-final, but this Ireland team are all about making history.
There is always a surprise package. Could it be Fiji with eight weeks of preparation leading into the tournament? Last year I was chatting to Stuart Lancaster when he said, “I’d love to be coaching Fiji. They have unbelievable talent and ability. They just need some structure and discipline, work on their set piece and they can match anyone.”
But imagine Ireland in the Rugby World Cup final on November 2nd, 2019?
I’d travel the globe to be there.
Then again, so much can go wrong – the ghost of World Cups past. The squad can become isolated. In 2007 we lived in an industrial estate outside Bordeaux because our hotel wasn’t finished in time. We didn’t bring a chef and the food was diabolical. There wasn’t even a spot to grab a coffee. The weather was terrible.
The first rule of…
There was a fried chicken burger restaurant across the road. I lived off tins of coke and white bread. Lost a shed load of weight – came home 105kg, having travelled at 112kg and I wasn’t even playing. The weather was a nightmare. We felt cursed.
I was one of the ‘Bordeaux Four’ – Brian Carney, Alan Quinlan and Bryan Young being the others – who never played a minute of rugby at the tournament and, try as we might, Eddie O’Sullivan wasn’t going to change his mind. We had many a fitness session together but also went drinking, most nights, for our sanity.
Eddie was straight with me. Unless there was an injury, I wasn’t getting a look in. It didn’t matter that I was battering guys in training. Human tackle bags became our role. We ran ourselves into the ground.
Lessons were learned before going to New Zealand in 2011, but fresh problems can and will appear from nowhere.
In 2007, I was only 22 but felt good enough to be an Ireland starter. Never got the opportunity. By 2011, I was established on the blindside. I’d toured South Africa with the Lions. My name was on the team sheet for every game.
We dominated the Wallabies to top the Pool. People still talk to me about the Will Genia incident. Every newspaper had the shot – me grabbing hold of Australia’s scrumhalf and frog marching him down field. Paulie and the other forwards piled in behind.
I actually had a poor game. Dropped a ball a few minutes later.
The quarter-final against Wales passed us by.
”Give me back one game of rugby in my career and it's that day in Wellington.
The narrative throughout the tournament was ‘Who should be playing out half – Johnny or Ronan?’ It seemed to be the only topic we were answering questions on. That needed to be shut down. And only one man could do that. A team needs to know who their starting 10 is but the coaching staff weren’t sure. Sexton even lined out at 12 in a game and at training. Fair play to Rog for refusing to go quietly. Who earns 100 caps and just hands over the jersey?
Rog or Johnny, one starting the other in reserve brings clarity to a team.
But none of our big players turned up against Wales. I certainly didn’t. Seanie O’Brien kept getting chopped before he got up a head of steam.
Wales dominated us in the scrum and at the breakdown. They should have won by more.
If I could turn back the clock…
I remember sitting in the hotel room with Seanie five hours before kick-off. We’d had lunch. Ten storeys below a huge crowd of Irish supporters were singing, “STAND UP FOR THE IRISHMEN.” Then whispering, “sit down for the Irishmen.”
Thousands of them.
Seanie turns around, “Fez, we are only three games away from winning the World Cup.”
“Jeez, mate I know. I’ve been thinking about that.”
Win this, win the semi-final, and we’ll beat the All Blacks!
Now, if me and Seanie were talking about it, how many other lads were letting such grand plans cloud their minds?
”We took our eye off the job at hand that day. Not on purpose. Just in the back of our minds we were thinking of bigger days.
On paper we had the measure of Wales. Everyone was saying Ireland had the world’s best backrow – me, Seanie and Jamie Heaslip. Wales put that to the test and we failed.
Give that week back to me and all the focus would have been on beating Wales. Any other talk would have been silenced. Wish I could play that game again. Just that one.
You learn lessons from World Cups you can’t get anywhere else. Sexton, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Bestie, and hopefully Seanie will travel in 2019.
I also think Joe learned so much from the 2015 World Cup. He’s meticulously built depth in every single position, he’s planned for the possibility of losing five key players to injury or suspension.
Ireland were cursed in 2015. Like 2007.
Without a large dollop of luck nobody wins anything.
Joe understands the mentality of players better than he did then. He surely sees the value of letting them breathe over a two-month period in camp. Otherwise, they’ll crack. You can’t be on their case about rugby all the time.
That was a problem in 2015. The intensity levels were too much. Guys I spoke to were almost relieved to get home. They were devastated, naturally, but almost happy it was all over because of the amount of stress that had been heaped upon them day in day out, minute to minute almost.
It was a relief to escape the bubble. People need time off during the tournament. They need moments, a day here and there, away from each other and rugby.
I saw Gareth Southgate had a family day in the team hotel after each England game at the World Cup last summer. The pressure valve was released as partners and kids came into their place of work.
Of course, it can all unravel. We have previous!
Where am I worried?
Positionally, hooker and fullback. Sean Cronin doesn’t start enough games when Rory Best is not playing and while Jordan Larmour has been a revelation this year, if Rob Kearney goes down there isn’t a fullback with his level of knowhow to slot in. Same goes for the loss of Rory’s leadership in the front row.
Seems like small worries but they exist. Of course, taking Johnny Sexton out of the mix changes everything but Joey Carbery is making steady progression now he’s switched to Munster. He is the future Ireland 10. He should be thrown into a serious Six Nations game.
We are going to lose key players, but I see this team being ready for that quarter-final. Joe will pick and choose his battles for certain games. He always seems to get his selection spot on.
Come a semi-final, yes, we will be down some big names, but we’ll be there. After that, anything is possible.
Where am I not worried?
James Ryan. When he first arrived on the scene barely a year ago, he was asked to name his favourite player. “Stephen Ferris,” he replied.
Well, right back at ya, James. I love watching him go to work for Leinster and Ireland. That’s how I wanted to play the game, but Ryan has my attributes and the skills of Pete O’Mahony thrown in. And he’s a 6’8 lock.
Can Ireland win the 2019 Rugby World Cup?
Course we can.
If you enjoyed Stephen’s story, you might like to read former Ireland and Leinster bagman Paddy ‘Rala’ O’Reilly’s Butler To The Captains & The Kings.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
You can also check out our Podcast. Subscribe today for more.