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Ireland need to ‘go up a gear’ to be World Cup contenders: MacNeill

Ireland need more players to step up as leaders to help talismanic skipper Johnny Sexton and play more expansively if they are to be genuine Rugby World Cup contenders, former Irish full-back Hugo MacNeill has told AFP.

Ireland have achieved the Six Nations Grand Slam three times this century but their Rugby World Cup record is underwhelming.

They have yet to reach the semi-finals and this time round have been handed a daunting draw.

They face defending champions South Africa, who they play for the first time in a World Cup, and dangerous Scotland in Pool B.

If they progress their likely quarter-final opponents are either hosts France or New Zealand.

“If Ireland are to be genuine contenders they need leaders to emerge and to develop an expansive backline game,” MacNeill — a member of the 1982 and 1985 Triple Crown-winning teams — told AFP.

“They are not going to trouble the Springboks in the line-outs nor the driving maul. They need to spread the ball around.

“I think the draw is very tough, especially when a key part of Ireland’s fortunes hang on keeping Sexton fit.

“Being in a very tough side of the draw he has to play in the big games, and if he is injured it will impact on Ireland’s chances.”

The 37-times capped MacNeill says, even at 38, Sexton remains “pivotal” to Ireland’s chances.

However, should he suffer an injury it will make it all the more important that others, with the honourable exception of veteran flanker Peter O’Mahony, show they are leaders too.

MacNeill, who also played three Tests for the British & Irish Lions on the 1983 tour of New Zealand, highlights how, in the absence of the injured Sexton, Leinster lacked leadership in last season’s Champions Cup final.

Leinster, who provide the vast majority of players for both the Irish squad and starting XV, let slip a 17-0 lead to lose 27-26 to defending champions La Rochelle.

“There is a massive dependency on Johnny Sexton in terms of leadership,” said MacNeill.

“It was very evident when he was not playing in the final that no-one stepped forward.

“Ireland need players like James Ryan and Caelan Doris to be leaders.

“England, the only northern hemisphere side to lift the trophy, did so because they not only had in my opinion the greatest captain of all time in Martin Johnson, but also leaders all over the pitch.

“They had Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood and Mike Catt.

“In Jonny Wilkinson they had a fantastic executioner.”

‘Go up a gear’

MacNeill says despite scoring a lot of tries under head coach Andy Farrell there has been little evidence of a developed, expansive game from Ireland.

“Ireland have got tries from the driving line out, the long pass and pressure paying off,” he said.

“However, you do not see the sort of phase-after-phase style of play.

“Bundee Aki seems a nice guy and a great team man but I do not think the passing game is as fluent as it needs to be.

“I think we need to go up a gear.”

MacNeill, 64, says Ireland are a “good team with good players” but he adds a caveat to their Grand Slam last season.

“Ireland have been very good the past couple of years,” he said.

“They are champions of Europe and Grand Slam winners but European rugby is probably as weak as I can remember it, with the exception of France.

“England are in a real mess, it cannot be helpful that three (Premiership) clubs have gone to the wall so players are worrying about their mortgage payments.”

He said Wales and Scotland were also below the highest level “while Italy is as it always is”.

“It is great (for Ireland) to be Grand Slam champions but it is not good enough to win the World Cup.”

MacNeill fears unless these matters are quickly addressed more World Cup disappointment awaits.

“Ireland are not at the level of winning the World Cup yet,” he said.

“We need to get to that level because we do not want to go out in the quarter-finals again.”