After back to back defeats in South Africa, albeit in frustrating and slightly unfortunate circumstances, the pessimist in us wondered just how far down the world rankings Ireland might slip before the World Cup seedings were finalised next May. The toughest November in history lay ahead, key men were ruled out, and the question wasn’t whether New Zealand would win in Chicago, but rather by how much.
That Ireland emerged with a drawn mini-series against the record-breaking New Zealand side, and three wins from four in all are testament to this Irish sides ability to dig deeper and more successfully into their reserves than ever before. Of course, none of this would be possible without Joe Schmidt’s outstanding coaching but in recent weeks the Irish squad have managed to display some true grit in the face of adversity. The victory against New Zealand will obviously stand out for most, particularly with the passing of time, but in many ways, Saturday night’s tensely eked out victory over Australia was almost as impressive.
Only twelve months ago, we bemoaned a lack of player depth, a lack of line speed in defence and an inability to move the ball with accuracy and intent. Against Australia, in the face of an almost unprecedented injury toll, particularly in the back line, Ireland conjured some really good attacking rugby, with one try finished out wide, another created there and the third taken with skilled opportunism by a rising star.
Best of all, perhaps, is that Ireland managed to claw their way back against Australia while playing some heavily, error-ridden rugby in front of a crowd that appeared to be lifeless until the hour mark. With more crisp passing, Australia might have won this game, but we’ve made that very point about Ireland on so many occasions in the past. The best teams find ways to win, even when best-laid plans go awry. No doubt, Ireland’s makeshift back line was plugging holes at an alarming rate but somehow they survived. And, just as in Chicago, with a southern hemisphere side rampant entering the crucial final quarter, Ireland not only resisted but responded in style, ending each game on the front foot.
How many generations of Irish rugby fans recall 60 minutes of blood and guts performances from their team, only to see the fatigue set into the side before they fell away to technically and aerobically superior sides? Under Joe Schmidt, and particularly post-New Zealand 2013, Ireland have gradually matured into a side that will stay all day long. While the coaching staff have ensured heretofore unseen levels of fitness, the side will also have reaped the benefits of closing out these tight end games.
Good sides hone their skills and bust their lungs all week long but, in the context of performing, no one in the world can coach a player into possessing an inherent sense of confidence. Yes, sports psychologists are all the rage, but to the untrained eye, their work seems to focus more on helping players apply themselves to specific tasks and ‘staying in the moment’. This presumably relates to how players approach their tasks and build up to games as opposed to the actual games themselves. It would be hard to imagine that a player could be anywhere but in the moment during a high intensity, physical contest.
However, for a team to have the widespread confidence to back themselves so thoroughly is something that can only be nurtured through winning games. The coaches’ roles are to prepare the side to the best of their ability, an area in which Joe Schmidt and his coaches are perhaps peerless. Once a side builds residual stores of self-belief, it becomes a different sort of beast. New Zealand have played like this for as long as most people can remember. Australia too, even when the quality wasn’t there, although that bullet-proof confidence seems to transcend all Australian sport. England displayed the trait most clearly in the eighteen month period leading up to their 2003 World Cup victory, and to their credit are always very capable of instilling self-confidence. Although, sometimes, like the occasion on which Girvan Dempsey ruined their homecoming party, the English can get more than a little carried away.
Irish teams have often struggled down the years in this area. Obviously, Ireland lost numerous games because the opposition possessed superior levels of skill and fitness. However, we can all recall occasions, generally against France or the southern hemisphere sides where a mental block or failure to execute under pressure led to defeat. Often times, also, expectation has weighed too heavily and Ireland have underperformed: Wales in 2011, South Africa in 2016, the entire of the 2007 World Cup.
This current Irish side have benefitted from an extraordinary coach who leaves nothing to chance. As the players have learned to execute Schmidt and, latterly Andy Farrell’s tactics nigh on perfectly, and the fitness levels have increased, so too have they grown comfortable relying on their intuition in the crucial moments of a game.
Before we get too carried away with our recent success, it is worth remembering that the World Cup is almost three years away and recent events will be water under the bridge come 2019. Just ask the Starks. While the reality is that people can’t help but get giddy after witnessing the events of the last month, inevitable talk of a Grand Slam showdown with England on March 18th is presumptuous. The form graph is trending upwards for all Six Nations, and Ireland will need to tread particularly carefully in their competition opener in Edinburgh, against a Scottish side that will go wide early and often.
This week’s rather abrupt, and welcome announcement regarding the trial of the bonus point system in the 2017 Six Nations means that the competition is at last willing to part with tradition, often a meaningless, bye-word for those aspects of the tournament which people think they enjoy but can’t quite pinpoint. Pragmatism shall prevail though and there will be few who expect these new incentives to create a try-fest in a reliably, grim Dublin in mid-February. Still, even if attacking benefits won’t be reaped until March, sides will still at least get a reward for enduring in a 15-9 defeat decided by the boot.
Of course, an English victory tomorrow would mean Eddie Jones’s men ending the calendar year unbeaten. Jones is arrogant, abrasive and, at least publicly, less than charming but there can be no questioning his success as a coach. Previously, he has successfully dragged a mediocre Australian team to a World Cup final, while memorably masterminding the greatest ever upset in World Cup history last year with Japan.
Now, Jones has exceptional squad depth and resources at his disposal and, though his approach couldn’t differ more from Schmidt’s, he possesses the same clarity of purpose. In a recent presentation to the RFU, Jones explicitly stated that he wanted to develop a secondary leadership group to achieve his ultimate goal: world domination by 2019 (in rugby). To his credit, the Australian never shirks a challenge and forces his players to accept pressure as a motivation. Apologists for the Australian are suggesting his antics are intended to shield the players from the media but we’re inclined to disagree as rugby players aren’t subjected to anything near the same relentless attention as footballers. Jones’ Mourinho-like abrasiveness walks a fine line but as history has proven, the antics of a winner will always be forgiven.
Time then to face back into a hugely important and intense window for the provinces before the new look Six Nations begins with renewed hope for all concerned. After a November of unprecedented success, that all began on the shores of Lake Michigan, Ireland face into the new year with enhanced vigour but they now move with a target on their back. The best sides thrive in this environment. Ireland should too.