First published in Rugby League World, Issue 385 (May 2013)
If there is one nation for whom the World Cup promises so much, even in the face of what looks like a devastatingly difficult draw, then it is surely Ireland.
In 2008, Ireland became everyone’s second favourite team as they surged to within 80 minutes of the semi-finals down under. Only a rampant Fiji team denied them a spot in the last four, but by then stirring performances against Tonga and Samoa – along with the inclusion of a certain Wayne Kerr, whose name sparked huge interest among the Aussie media – had caught the public’s imagination.
The win over Samoa, in particular, was a highlight. Ireland were given a standing ovation as they left the pitch at Parramatta Stadium having seen off opponents including Matt Utai, Nigel Vagana, George Carmont and Ali Lauiti’iti.
Now, five years on, they finally get the chance to restore their profile. It is an opportunity of which vice-captain Tyrone McCarthy is acutely aware.
“After how successful we were at the last World Cup, we’ve not really kicked on to where people might have imagined,” he said. “We need to match how well we did at the last World Cup in terms of our performances, but results are where we’ll ultimately get judged.”
In truth, one win is probably the best they can hope for. They face Fiji in their opening match, where their determination to avenge that 2008 loss will guarantee a full-blooded clash in Rochdale.
From there, they travel to Huddersfield to take on England before crossing the sea for a date with the Kangaroos in Limerick.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” says McCarthy. “Realistically, if we can come out of that group with a win – or even two – that would be a massive success. After that it is knockout football and you don’t know what happens on the day, but Fiji is our first game and our big focus will be on that.”
There is every reason to believe Ireland could at least claim that triumph over Fiji come October. Pat Richards, one of the stars of that 2008 campaign, has put his hand back up for selection, while plenty of other seasoned professionals are in the running.
“Looking at the squad we’ve had over the years, it’s always been quite light in the forwards, but this year it looks pretty strong. If we get some good time together, we could go well,” says McCarthy.
“Right now Mark (Aston, Ireland’s head coach) and the other staff are finalising who’s available and who they want to be monitoring as the season goes on. We’ve already had a couple of brief discussions about what myself and (captain) Liam (Finn) should be doing in the meantime.
“There’s no warm-up game planned as yet, but we might look to have a camp on the weekend of the England-Exiles game, or even just a get together with the initial squad. There are lads that have been involved before, and newer players that become eligible this year, so we need to make sure everyone is okay with each other and the mix is right before we start finalising the World Cup squad proper.”
The frustration, from an Irish point of view, is that they have had to wait so long to be back in the spotlight. It is a point felt particularly keenly by McCarthy, who took the unusual step of writing to the RFL during the last off-season to offer his thoughts on how the home nations could be developed over the coming years.
“I got quite a detailed email back off them about some of the changes that might come. They said there was quite a big discussion going on with the RLIF, and hopefully there’ll be a long-term view from that. Some of the ideas I put forward might already be being put in place.
“I certainly got the response I wanted – it’s now just about whether it actually happens. There needs to be a decent future for the home nations if we want to improve both domestically and internationally.
“You’ve only to look at the other code to see how big their international scene is. We need to aim for that, and put strategies in place. On the back of the last World Cup we were probably a country where we might have competed over the last four years, but players swapping to England hasn’t helped.
“The eligibility rule was a bug bear of everyone. It’s not good commercially, or for the wider health of the game. If you place more emphasis on choosing a nationality and staying with it, that looks a better way forward to me – but certainly I don’t blame the players who’ve swapped at all. It’s a political decision and there are lots of things to take into account.”
McCarthy also put forward ideas about how to incentivise players to stay with the home nations, including a proposal for a Celtic Nations team to replace the Exiles in the mid-season international with England.
“That would all lead into a Great Britain squad,” he said. “With the NRL salary cap going up, the quality and the number of Australians coming here might decrease over the next few years.”
But those are discussions for the future. Of immediate concern is getting Ireland up to speed for October.
“Mark’s a great coach,” said McCarthy. “He keeps things simple, but very effective. He gets to know your strengths and characteristics and lets you play towards them. He just wants everyone to buy into the hard work, and the success comes from that.”
While Ireland’s opening game against Fiji is crucial, it is facing the Kangaroos in Limerick that is most exciting. “We’re showcasing Rugby League with that game. We need to put in a good performance. I’ve heard ticket sales are going really well, and I know lots of people who are going over to watch it.
“My grandparents come from Cork, and they’ll be there cheering us on. It should be a great occasion.”
By: Neil Barraclough