DESPITE their far from encouraging pre-tournament preparations only a series of freak results would see Ireland fail to reach the quarter-finals for the second successive World Cup.

Declan Kidney’s side are rooted in a transitional phase with the stars of the 2009 Grand Slam-winning side on the wane, and the young upstarts vying to replace them lacking the nous to negotiate their way through a gruelling tournament.

That said, the barnstorming performance against England in Dublin back in March, which prevented Martin Johnson’s men from completing a northern hemisphere clean sweep, demonstrated the old guard, including British Lions stalwarts Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, are still capable of rousing vintage performances on the biggest stage.

Four years ago Ireland found themselves in a group of death comprising, among others, France and Argentina. This time around Italy offer the only potential roadblock to qualification.

Assuming buoyant Tri-Nations victors Australia, influenced heavily by the maverick skills of fly-half Quade Cooper and the only man capable of rivalling New Zealand’s Richie McCaw as the world’s best No7, David Pocock, top Pool C with a 100 per cent record,Ireland’s hopes of making the last eight will boil down to the clash against the improving, if still workmanlike, Azzurri.

Also-rans USA and Russia will offer little resistance but an Italian side prepared by a man as coveted as coach Nick Mallet, who will be leaving his post at the end of the tournament, deserves the utmost respect.

Victories over France and Scotland this spring highlight the threat offered by Italy, but Ireland should be capable of averting disaster.

STAR MAN
Jonathan Sexton: It’s pushing it to suggest the fulcrum of the ultra successful Leinster side represents the antithesis of the deposed Ronan O’Gara, but the 25-year-old is certainly a more daring and adventurous style of fly-half. Much of Ireland’s hopes rests on his shoulders.