With the Rugby World Cup less than twenty-five days away we’ll be bringing you our weekly build up, culminating in predictions for each team, with an unsurprisingly heavy emphasis on Joe Schmidt’s highly-fancied side. We say highly fancied as a relative term, particularly taking into account the systematic malfunction in 2007 and Irish rugby’s nadir –spoken about with almost funereal solemnity- in Lens in 1999. The final previews will take place in three parts in the week preceding the tournament curtain-raiser between hosts England and Fiji on the 18th September.
For now, we ‘re trying to figure out which teams are intentionally going to battle with blanks and what valid assumptions we can make on the basis of the past fortnight’s play. The reality of these pre-World Cup games is that the coaches want their front line players to get at least one run out –aside for the (French) game time calls like Cian Healy- while settling any potentially tight selection decisions on the final few squad members. Injuries destroy the dreams of some –Tommy O’ Donnell just weeks ago and in the past Geordan Murphy, David Wallace and Felix Jones- while simultaneously ridding the selectors of what is actually a highly desirable selection headache.
Ireland looked cohesive against Wales, playing with the exact same precise, high-pressure rugby that has led to such success for Ireland in the past two seasons. The game against Scotland seven days later, while won by Ireland was probably more remarkable for Scotland’s willingness to run back coupled with a slightly worrying ability to breach the Irish defence. Both were phoney wars however whose relevance is largely inscrutable and it is only this week that the remaining big guns come to the fore and that real meaning can possibly be extricated from the team’s performance.
Wales too will be more tournament oriented this week but even still neither side will want to reveal anything of note to their onlooking group opponents. The reality is that any tweaked or expanded game plans will be restricted to in-house training while the pre-tournament friendlies will provide the opportunity to acquire match fitness and ideally hone set-piece consistency and communication and stability in defence. Don’t expect Jonathan Sexton to whip out an inventive backline move which has been finely crafted with France in mind. Or for a crafty line-out play to spring up against England in a fortnight’s time. Nonetheless, it would be heartening to see the Irish side attempt an off-loading game, for this is virtually indefensible, even when anticipated, and further still can’t be produced spontaneously in October without some prior in-game introduction.
Over the past two seasons, Ireland have been absolutely magnificent under both the tutelage of Joe Schmidt and stewardship of Paul O’ Connell. In these last eighteen months only once have Ireland fallen behind by two scores –Wales in March of this year- and the sides failure to overturn the two score deficit that day led to mass overreaction regarding Ireland’s inability in to come from behind to win a game. On reflection, this argument is a mishmash of both sound thinking and ill-founded logic. Since Schmidt’s second game in charge- the oddly listless performance against Australia- Ireland have only once faced a double-digit deficit, in the aforementioned Welsh game, and as they failed to recover from twelve points down, there is a largely pedantic point to be made that Ireland cannot come from behind. Utilising this line of thinking, one could delve deep into hyperbole and state that Ireland have never come from two scores down to win a game with Schmidt in charge. However, a pragmatic analysis of the twenty-two match reign will show that Ireland have developed the ability to wrest control of a game in its infancy thus negating the need to produce a stirring comeback.
The defeat in Wales –seven points in the end combined with some quirky scrum refereeing by Wayne Barnes- was surely disappointing but as is the wont of the vanquished, Irish people were slow to acknowledge a phenomenal Welsh defensive performance, instead focusing on Ireland’s lack of creativity. We also had our reservations post-Cardiff but the frailties in Ireland’s attack –and let’s be honest there are some- can only really be measured in the coming months. As in any sport, a successful side is founded on the bedrock of a top class defence- Manchester United 1999, Pittsburgh Steelers 2005, Donegal 2012- and Ireland’s defence is as good now as at any other period of the professional era. Offense is harder to manufacture and as an idea is more difficult to instil in players. On a modern sports field it is far easier to close off space than it is to create it. Ireland’s defence, though not peerless, is rightly lauded but the question mark over the line-breaking ability of our centres and three-quarters, while perhaps over emphasised, irrefutably remains.
Truly, we will not know, perhaps until the Italian game in London whether Ireland’s attacking game has added a greater sense of fluency and creativity since the spring. One suspects, and it is understandable, that Joe Schmidt will keep the powder dry over the next fortnight but that is not to take from the importance of Saturday’s game, particularly as the last few golden tickets are up for grabs. For some, like Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Dave Kearney the hope will be that the ball is moved freely, allowing them to make the most of their final audition for the big show. Further, Saturday’s game will grant the Irish public an opportunity to say a final goodbye on Irish soil to one of its greatest and most influential leaders in this or any other era, the peerless Paul O’ Connell. One hopes his final foreign mission in the green jersey proves the most bountiful expedition in Irish rugby history.