London: Ireland have never reached a Rugby World Cup semi-final, but former captain Keith Wood believes they can win the trophy if they beat France in their final pool match.
The Irish have still to play Italy and France the Canadians, but both should reach their high stakes Cardiff showdown on October 11 unbeaten.
Barring huge upsets, the loser of the contest will get a fearsome quarter-final clash against defending champions New Zealand, who are storming to first place in Pool C. The winner would likely get an easier task against Argentina.
However, 2001 World Player of the Year Wood — who bowed out of Test rugby with a 2003 quarter-final loss to France — said the Irish under coach Joe Schmidt have the quality to make a big impact on the tournament.
New Zealander Schmidt has in just two years turned Ireland from a demoralised unit into the winners of two successive Six Nations titles, and with notable wins over southern hemisphere giants Australia and South Africa.
“I think this competition is all about the game with France,” said Wood, an ambassador for tournament sponsor Mastercard.
“The Irish are expected to win their first three games and, if they win against France or lose to France, there will be just a couple of points in it.
“If they win they play Argentina, which is an incredibly tough game, and if they lose it is the All Blacks, and they are no slouch either.
“However, we know which of those opponents will be the hardest.
“Can they [the Irish] get to the semis? Yes, they can. Can Ireland win the World Cup? Yes, they can.”
Wood said the Irish look strong but need to stay injury free.
“Maybe we need a bit of luck and I’ve seen lots of teams win World Cups who have had a bit of luck, so we can take a bit of that ourselves this time.”
Wood, who was affectionately known in his playing days as the ‘Raging Potato’ because of his shaven-headed rampaging runs, said Schmidt has lifted the pressure off players better than previous Ireland coaches.
“We’ve had steel in the past [at the World Cup] and some things have worked for us and some haven’t,” said Wood, who highlighted Ireland’s campaign in 2003, his finale. “Maybe we could have done more and didn’t and is something that I regret.
“I like the fact there is a sense of thoroughness to Joe Schmidt. His attention to detail, his willingness to dissect things to the smallest part to try and get things right.
“He somehow manages that and takes pressure off his players at the same time.
“Don’t ask me how he does that, but however he manages it is definitely a skill in itself.”
Wood, who was part of the British and Irish Lions side that beat world champions South Africa in 1997, said he liked what he had seen of a “very competent” Ireland in their comfortable victories over Canada (50-5) and Romania (44-10).
“They haven’t shown a huge amount but they look like they have another gear, and then another gear and another gear and they look very capable.
“Of course there have been matches they should win and win at a canter.”
Wood said that, unlike the 2007 World Cup, when Ireland were also considered dark horses for the title and flopped in embarrassing fashion by going out in the pool stage, this Irish side had done everything right.
“One goes back to 2007 and you have to say they got their fitness work very wrong and their game plan quite wrong,” said Wood.
“They went wide without engaging with very big sets of forwards and the games were still alive towards the end, which tired them out.
“When you play the smaller teams you have to be more physical than they are and you have to absolutely shatter them.
“It takes 60 minutes but you know you will come out of the back of it and you will be fine which is what they have done this time round.”