Irish eyes could be smiling all the way to a World Cup semi-final if the squad stays injury-free, a former Irish rugby international has said.
Trevor Ringland believes the group stage draw has been favourable, and that a win against France of October 11 could to key to a first-ever appearance in the last four.
With Italy, Canada and Romania making up the rest of Pool D, it would be a major upset if Ireland and France didn’t progress. However, both will be hoping to top the group and avoid the winners of Pool C – which contains world champions New Zealand.
“I think there is reason for optimism, with the performance of the Irish team over the last number of years and their current standing,” Mr Ringland said.
“But you can temper that with the performances in their warm-up games – there are some concerns arising and you also worry about a resurgent French team who seem to be finding their way again.
“Cautious optimism is maybe the best way to look at it. It is so vital for Ireland to avoid injuries, as they don’t have the depth of players some of the other teams have, but the match against France is the key game and if they win that then they have a very good chance of making the semi-finals.”
If Ireland did finish ahead of France, and beat the expected runners up in Pool C, Argentina, it would be a “huge achievement,” Mr Ringland said.
Tonga, Georgia and Namibia make up Pool C along with Argentina and the All Blacks.
Ireland get their campaign underway on Saturday afternoon against the Canadians at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, while France meet Italy on Saturday evening at Twickenham.
The former winger – who won 34 caps for Ireland between 1981 and 1988 scoring nine tries – made his debut against Australia and later played for the British and Irish Lions.
He said Ireland have shown in recent years that when relatively injury-free they can be a match for anyone, although he is concerned the French have improved over the last 12 months.
“If they can get through to the semi-final stage...those one-off games, you can win them, and then you’re through to the final.
“But I would be more optimistic if it was the French team playing the way they played last season.
“At times they can be brilliant. They are always quite difficult to beat and any time you get a win against France it is an achievement.”
Mr Ringland added: “What we want to see is a 100 per cent performance from this team. They haven’t been showing that in the warm-up games but that is perhaps understandable, because players just aren’t wanting to make that level of commitment in those games. I’m sure it’s a thing [manager] Joe Schmidt has been working on.
“Injuries to players in key positions, such as Johnny Sexton, and the likes of Paul O’Connell would be very worrying. Those are key positions where we can’t afford players to get injured.
“But the crowed will be very green in each of the venues and that will be a big help to the Irish team.