Rugby: Irish team offers excitement and unpredictability

Our series looking at the six teams visiting Dunedin during the Rugby World Cup continues, as Hayden Meikle profiles Ireland.

The Six Nations countries all have a distinct rugby identity. Wales - glorious history. Scotland - gallant in defeat. Italy - entertaining and erratic. France - full of flair. England - stodgy.

And then there is Ireland, the plucky Celts who are an intriguing mix of excitement and bullishness, dosed with thick spoonfuls of under-achievement.

Always a popular bunch, the Irish have made something of a habit of falling a little short of expectations on the big stage.

They have appeared in all six Rugby World Cups but have never managed to get past the quarterfinals. The closest they got was in 1991, when they were beaten 19-18 by eventual champion Australia.

Three times, Ireland has reached the final eight only to be knocked out by the French.

Four years ago, Irish eyes were definitely not smiling when they failed in spectacular style in the 2007 World Cup, in France. They had been widely touted as semifinal prospects but crashed and burned, nearly losing to minnow Georgia.

Two years later, Ireland was charging to the Six Nations title in style.

This year, Ireland just scraped past Italy and Scotland, lost to Wales and France, and saved face only with a good win over England in the final round.

The side's pre-cup form has not exactly been sparkling, either, with four straight losses and the omission of high-profile players Tomas O'Leary and Luke Fitzgerald from the World Cup squad raised some eyebrows.

But the Irish should still field a reasonable team, built around the experience of Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, Jamie Heaslip, Denis Leamy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Geordan Murphy and Gordon D'Arcy.

Keep an eye on rising halfback Conor Murray, while Jonathan Sexton looks to have usurped one-dimensional veteran Ronan O'Gara in the No 10 jersey.

Ireland's final game, a Six Nations rematch with Italy at Dunedin's new stadium, is the final pool match of the whole tournament.

An intriguing clash is with the United States on September 11, when Americans will mark 10 years since the terrorist attacks on New York. The big game for the Irish is the date with Australia at Eden Park.

Ireland: the facts

: Dublin
: 6.2 million

• Sadly, for most of us born after 1950, one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of Ireland is civil unrest. The worst of "the Troubles" are over, though, and now the Emerald Isle can rest on its reputation as a place of beauty, culture, storytelling and Guinness drinking.
• Ireland has a glorious literary history, through the likes of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt, while Bono, Bob Geldof and Shane MacGowan are part of the musical fabric.
• Great Irish sportsmen include footballers George Best and Roy Keane, golfer Padraig Harrington, boxer Barry McGuigan and snooker ace Alex "Hurricane" Higgins.

Coach: Declan Kidney.
Captain: Brian O'Driscoll.
Previous World Cups: Quarterfinalist in 1987, 1991, 1995 and 2003.
Games: v USA, New Plymouth, September 11; v Australia, Auckland, September 17; v Russia, Rotorua, September 25; v Italy, Dunedin, October 2.

Players to watch
Brian O'Driscoll: A little older and a little slower, but still oozes class and is still revered in Europe as the prince of centres.
Paul O'Connell: The big Munster lock was poor on the 2005 Lions tour and still has his detractors, but he can be dominant on his day.
Sean O'Brien: A new kid on the block and an exciting, ball-carrying loose forward.



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