10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
It hasn't been the most auspicious of build-ups to the World Cup - a 2-0 series defeat in Argentina, followed by a first defeat in eight to Scotland and a bruiser in Bayonne in which we nearly lost our talismanic captain.
There was a touch of the International Rules Second Test about the Bayonne match - not just in terms of the pugilistic skills of Ireland's opponents, but also the pre-match warning delivered. I can't quite recall the name of the Aussie player who predicted Graham Geraghty's demise in the International Rules second test, but one wonders if he was a long-lost cousin of Richard Dourthe, whose pre-match pontifications on the benefit to France of an injury to Brian O'Driscoll before the World Cup were nothing short of scandalous.
The FFR President, Bernard Lapasset, felt sufficiently embarrassed about the nature of events that he is seeking an inquiry into the affair. It appears, however, that Brian O'Driscoll will be fit in time for the French match. It is at this point that Lapasset's countrymen may learn to rue the approach of Bayonne, because if history teaches us anything, it is that Brian O'Driscoll is likely to use such an event as personal motivation. Expect him to be particularly fired up for the French match. I suspect that Lapasset's intervention bore this partially in mind.
This, of course, can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's not like the man ordinarily goes out in anything less than full combat mode. And anything that oversteps the mark could be counter-productive. However, I can't see this match seeing Ireland get off to the slow start that cost us the Grand Slam, or the passivity that saw us exit the 2003 World Cup in effectively the first ten minutes against France in the Quarter-Final.
Allowing for the narrow miss that appears to be at play regarding O'Driscoll and that Denis Leamy's shoulder injury isn't that serious, the Bayonne match could yet turn out the be precisely what the doctor ordered. With international friendlies necessarily evoking an element of shadow boxing, this was the real physical deal that quickly gets players attuned to the requirements of a new season early on. In a situation where we don't have the luxury of time to play ourselves into form, this may well turn out to be a tonic.
The real excitement of this World Cup is the sense that genuinely anything could happen. It's not delusional to suggest that Ireland could just as easily finish first, second or third in the Group. In other words, it is as likely that we will play Scotland for a place in the Semi-Final as it is that we will play New Zealand in the Quarter-Final as it is that we will be on our way home.
The rise of Argentina to fifth in the IRB World Rankings, ahead of Ireland, further underlines the inherent difficulties in a group that includes half of the world's top six teams. Not that the change in IRB Rankings positions will have any real bearing on the outcome. Ireland have slipped from fifth due to not having played a full strength team in their last three outings and paid the price.
Deep down, Ireland know that they are a more rounded team than Argentina and that there is not a lot to choose between themselves and France. Indeed, watching the videos of the Wales v Argentina and France v England matches won't have raised their fear levels at all.
Much of international rugby these days is like air travel - hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. It is in this respect that the Rugby World Cup really needs Ireland to go well. Ours is one of the few teams that is genuinely exciting to watch. England, in particular, but France also under Laporte, make Edison's 1% inspiration seem startlingly promiscuous.
Of course, regardless of talent and application, luck is going to play an important part in the outcome. It was no less a philosopher than Oprah Winfrey that noted, 'Luck is where preparation meets opportunity'. In terms of making your own luck therefore, the most promising thing I have read in some time regarding Ireland's chances was an interview with Liam Hennessy in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago. In it he said that we were now on a level playing field with the southern hemisphere teams in terms of power.
This is the result of an eight year catch-up programme. I can vividly recall Ireland playing Australia in Lansdowne Road in the 1999 World Cup. Ireland never stood a chance because as Liam Hennessy said afterwards 'It was obvious within 5 minutes that the disparity in power levels between the two teams meant we could not win'. It was ritualistic to the point that the crowd never got involved (it didn't help that it was a Sunday!).
Finally, after eight years of preparation, we are at the point where we are looking to marry it to the opportunity.