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Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup

McNaughton: We Need To Be On Form And Fully Focused

McNaughton: We Need To Be On Form And Fully Focused

Team manager Paul McNaughton is optimistic that Ireland have both the talent and self belief to do themselves justice at the Rugby World Cup, writes Kieran Rooney.

There is a true story involving Paul McNaughton and Geordan Murphy during the period when the Ireland played at Croke Park.

At a break in a training session, some hurleys were brought out onto the pitch. Ireland manager McNaughton struck a €;20 bet with Murphy that he could put the sliothar over the bar from the halfway line.

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McNaughton took off the specs, picked up the hurley and duly planted his shot between the posts. Not bad for a guy in his fifties who last played the game in his school days.

The importance of that story is that McNaughton clearly believes in the maxim that most things are possible if you really believe in yourself. Needless to say, you have to have some talent to go with that belief.

In the case of the current Ireland squad, McNaughton is optimistic that they have both the talent and self belief to do themselves justice in the World Cup. Not that he would underestimate the task they face in a pool which includes the USA, Australia, Russia and Italy.

“The World Cup is like any competition in that you have to take it step by step. Just like the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup, that starts with getting out of your pool,” he said.

“There is no difference here. We have four matches and anything can happen. So, there is no talk of quarter-finals or semi-finals, just talk of winning the pool.”

For that to happen, Ireland will have to defeat one of the top teams in the world in Australia, along with a very resourceful Italian outfit. A tough enough assignment by any standards, particularly after an erratic warm-up campaign.

“Yes, it will be difficult. I think Australia are ranked second in the world behind New Zealand, while we only have to reflect back on our game against them in Rome earlier this year to recognise how hard Italy can be to overcome.

“Australia are clearly the tougher proposition. But I don’t believe there’s been much between us in our meetings over the past three or four years.”

What though of Australia’s decision to omit one of their star performers, Matt Giteau? “That did surprise us but when it comes to a World Cup really good international players get on the wrong side of those decisions,” admitted McNaughton.

“We’ve had a few ourselves with Tomas O’Leary and Luke Fitzgerald. When it’s a tough call, current form is a great leveller.

“Giteau has done great things for Australia in the past but obviously Robbie Deans feels his current form doesn’t measure up.”

Then again, Australia are not exactly short of quality backs. What is more, there have also been signs in their Tri Nations triumph of an improvement up front.

“True, but we will still be going out believing we can beat them. We are capable on our day of defeating any of the teams in our pool, along with either Wales or South Africa in the quarter-finals.

“Of course, if we don’t come up with a full deck of cards we can be beaten. It’s about level of performances but there’s no doubt we will approach all of those games with the belief we can do this.”

Unsurprisingly, McNaughton agrees that New Zealand are the team everyone has to beat. “Listen, they are the favourites, they are the best team in the world. They have the best record in the world.

“Sure they have had mishaps in the World Cup where expectations have got too high, but I think they are definitely the team to beat.”

Something else McNaughton is conscious of is how South Africa and England always tend to produce at World Cups irrespective of how they are performing beforehand.

But, for the moment, his attention and that of head coach Declan Kidney is firmly on the opening match against the USA this Sunday.

“Of course, we are expected to beat the USA but the one thing we will be doing is making sure that there is no overconfidence for that game. We have to give respect to the opposition,” he explained.

“I have experienced US rugby myself and it hasn’t changed that much. Our coaches have watched the US and Russia in the Churchill Cup in England in June, so we are firmly up to date.

“Ultimately, we are going to have to beat Italy in our final pool game in Dunedin. If we don’t, we could find ourselves not getting out of the pool.

“We need to be on form and fully focused throughout. There are lots of considerations, a six-day turnaround between our first two games against the USA and Australia, the travel to Auckland and the fact that the Italy match will be in a new indoor stadium.

“It’s a stadium which is actually indoor with a permanent roof. They have various ways of cooling the pitch down and letting the air in.

“Essentially it is the first rugby ground that I have known that has a permanent roof. It’s like a huge glasshouse. That should be quite interesting.”

This article appeared in the special World Cup edition of ‘In Touch’ – the official IRFU magazine in association with O2. It was free with Tuesday’s Irish Independent.

Follow the Ireland team in New Zealand on www.twitter.com/irfurugby.