All sorts of thoughts -predominantly negative- must have gone through the heads of Irish supporters this week. Some legitimate and rational and others of the more reactionary half-baked variety. The first line of thinking which needs to be nipped in the bud is that the disastrous 2007 World Cup –which was sullied by the dreadful three-match preparation and the nadir of the shit-kicking down in Bayonne- is about to repeat itself over the next seven weeks. True, Ireland’s performances in the warm up games have been largely listless but to us they are more symptomatic of a side that is going through the motions and with good reason- Ireland need to keep the powder dry and peak in a month’s time. That said things are far from rosy in the garden –the defence which is not an area for variations and tricks up the sleeve has been decidedly porous- and it is hard to subscribe to the theory that everything will simply click into place against Italy and latterly France. Perspective does of course, as ever, need to be applied. Ireland have won two warm-up games, admittedly against largely unrecognisable Welsh and Scottish sides. A six point defeat followed against Wales, with Sean Cronin held up over the line to prevent what would have been the winning score, if perhaps undeserved. It was only at Twickenham last weekend that alarm bells –though hopefully premature- started to ring. As objective observers we can only speculate but on a balanced summary of last week’s game we have plenty of food for thought.
Ireland’s defence, or more specifically, tackling was hugely disappointing, particularly in the first forty minutes last weekend. Reliable veterans like Tommy Bowe –found wanting most obviously for Jonny May’s try- Rory Best and Devin Toner missed multiple tackles while the narrow Irish defence seemed to offer up countless opportunities out wide to the home side. Though the performance improved considerably in the second half England were well worth their eight point victory. And, though signs of life emerged, our over-reliance on a dominant tight game was heavily emphasised once more.
For Ireland to succeed next month and hopefully onwards Joe Schmidt knows that his side will have to be virtually unbreachable in defence, akin to the Six Nations winning sides of the last two seasons. On this basis the most recent defensive aberration in Twickenham is cause for genuine concern. True, England were sloppy and lacked the clinical edge which will be a prerequisite in two weeks but this is surely missing the point. Ireland should only be concerned about ensuring their defense –both in terms of systems and straight up tackling- is perfected in the next fortnight. No coach sends his side into a rugby match, of any nature, with the instruction to take it easy in defence, so as not to reveal their hand. How does the cornerstone of a very successful side, the heretofore rocksteady defence suddenly appear more flimsy than the plot of a Christopher Nolan film? We can only hope that this was the first crease ironed out in the week gone by. In any event, Schmidt and this current Irish side have enough defensive credit in the bank at this stage -though they assuredly don’t give anything remotely close to a shit about the prevailing public opinion- so for supporters it is a question of patience and trust.
The perverse nature of the Irish psyche requires us to immediately presume that the worst is going to happen when a major tournament comes around. And, let’s be fair, our rugby and soccer teams have gifted future generations with umpteen cautionary tales – humiliation in Lens, lunacy in Saipan and the perhaps never to be explained meltdown all over France in 2007- so it is an alien notion for Ireland to be approaching a global showpiece imbued with confidence.
This Irish team is entering this World Cup as a genuine contender –how genuine only time will tell- and despite our inherent naysaying this point is difficult to dispute. Too often Irish teams have played with a sense of inadequacy and perhaps fear of their opponents. Now the team play with a different type of fear, a specific fear that has been engendered during the short reign of Joe Schmidt. Now players fear losing because of the responsibility they have to their team mates and the rational, honest fear of their failings being forensically exposed by Joe Schmidt in the company of their peers.
Fear in the right form is an excellent weapon. Or as music mogul Jimmy Iovine once said, “ Fear is a powerful thing…. If you can figure out a way to wrestle that fear, to push you from behind rather than stand in front of you, that’s very powerful.” Have this Irish squad learned to tackle fear in a positive manner? Everything thus far suggests they have. But this question will not truly be answered until 11th October against France, a team who have so often
represented the fear that stands in front of Irish teams.