World Cup 2011: Last hurrah for Irish icons

By Alvin McCaigBBC Sport NI
Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell
Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell provide inspiration and experience

Expectations are not high and that's exactly how the Irish like it.

Losing all four World Cup warm-up games dampened hopes that this team could compete with the big guns at the sharp end of the World Cup in New Zealand.

Form is temporary but history is also no friend of the Irish.

Ireland's record in the tournament shows four quarter-final appearances, but they have gone no further.

The men in green have failed to make it out of the group stage twice, including the debacle of 2007 when a highly-rated Irish team travelled to France but flopped spectacularly.

And as coach Declan Kidney was keen to point out, Ireland have only won two World Cup games against Six Nations or Tri-Nations opposition.

Key players such as skipper Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell were at their peak four years ago and when the Six Nations Grand Slam was won in 2009, it was reward for a golden generation of Irish talent.

O'Driscoll and O'Connell remain pivotal figures but injury has taken its toll on these battle-weary warriors, and they are among 13 thirtysomethings in an ageing squad.

The warm-up games highlighted weaknesses throughout the team and concerns remain over of the fitness of talisman O'Driscoll and centre partner Gordon D'Arcy.

This looks like a team on the wane, with the World Cup likely to provide more swansongs than career highs.

Reaching the quarter-finals, before a brave but ultimately losing display against formidable opposition, in all likelihood reigning champions South Africa, would be deemed a credible return from the trip Down Under.

If Ireland are to cause an upset and reach the semis for the first time, it will most likely have more to do with attitude than ability.

Munster lock Donncha O'Callaghan admits the 2007 debacle was "a scarring event in all our careers".

"It took me a lot of time to get over it and some of us still haven't," he added.

Making amends is a strong motivation while O'Callaghan believes that accusations of the Irish being "chokers" on the big stage were answered by the Grand Slam triumph two years ago.

However, the hype which surrounded the Irish team in 2007 is missing this time and that can only help free the minds of those susceptible to pressure.

This is expected to be the last World Cup for O'Callaghan and many of the stalwarts who have taken Ireland to a new level in the last decade.

Going out on a high is another driver and O'Driscoll aims to make a bit of history in New Zealand.

"This is my third World Cup and I have reached one quarter-final - nothing to shout about," said the Leinster star.

"I don't want to finish my career having not achieved on the highest stage. There's the motivation for me.

"I want to finish my last World Cup by doing something an Irish side has never done."

When you add the enthusiasm and energy of World Cup debutants such as Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton and Tommy Bowe, there are grounds for optimisim.

Not too optimistic, of course, we're happy to be outsiders.

World Cup 2001 fixtures (Pool C)

Sunday, 11 September

Ireland v USA (0700 BST, New Plymouth)

Saturday, 17 September

Ireland v Australia (0930, Auckland)

Sunday, 25 September

Ireland v Russia (0600, Rotorua)

Sunday 2 October

Ireland v Italy (0830, Dunedin)