We could all learn a little from staying in the moment. Late last year as the country grew giddy up in the aftermath of a victory over New Zealand, Gerry Thornley suggested on Second Captains that rather looking to the Rugby World Cup, we should simply enjoy the victory over the world’s best side in isolation.
However, unlike athletes or more reasoned people, the Irish public couldn’t help but point to another indication that we were ready to compete seriously in Japan. In light of a disquieting 2019 for the Irish rugby team, perhaps we should have taken heed of Thornley’s advice.
Barring victory against a completely disinterested French side, the Six Nations brought ill tidings for this Irish team. If Joe Schmidt’s side were hoodwinked by England, there could no argument that the Welsh caught us by surprise in Cardiff on St Patricks weekend. Even allowing for the caveats sprinkled liberally hereafter, Ireland’s prospects of success in Japan in the coming months have been blunted to the point of impotence.
While it is the natural for the sporting public – in all countries not just Ireland – to overreact to the fortunes of their team, it is not unreasonable for us to wonder just what exactly has gone wrong with this Irish team?
People have been at pains to point out that Ireland were only playing their second warm up match on Saturday evening, while England had already faced Wales twice in increasingly competitive fixtures. That might give you a little grace, particularly from the point of view of match fitness, but it will take considerably longer to establish why Ireland defended so wretchedly from the off? Or why each English first phase play looked like a move orchestrated by the Stephen Larkham-era Australians?
The first, and gravest concern, is that Ireland are not the type of team who can simply, like Dustin Johnson, completely forget their bad days, dust themselves off and move on to the next challenge. A record-breaking defeat against England in Twickenham four weeks out from the start of the World Cup is exceptionally worrying. And, one would have to wonder why – outside of presumed financial incentives – why the IRFU chose to play a bulldozing English side in Twickenham at this point in Ireland’s preparations?
England, of course, had already picked their 31 players to travel to Japan and this was probably the last run out for the first fifteen but for anyone over the age of 30, there was more than a hint of the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when England routinely demoralised and disassembled Ireland. There were so many worrying aspects to Ireland’s performance though. With the exception of a fairly solid scrum, every facet of Ireland’s game malfunctioned with aplomb.
While miserable, Brazil-based troll journalists bask in the recent failings of the Irish rugby team, while rambling incoherently about the Celtic Tiger, it seems the rest of the country are alarmed, though not surprised, by the continued dip in form. Most reasonable observers though will note the same failings that surrounded the 2015 World Cup are bubbling to the surface once more.
Ireland defended narrowly and passively, which is a combination destined for failure. Most sides that defend narrowly at least rush up and in to force the attack to make decisions – you see this every week in both codes of rugby – but Ireland’s lack of cohesion in defence was mystifying. Bundee Aki seemed to bite too often but Jacob Stockdale too made some dreadful defensive reads, as did Rob Kearney to a lesser extent.
Allied to the obvious systemic failings in the defence was the rash of missed tackles with Joe Cockinasinga, Jonny May and the outstanding Manu Tuil’agi repeatedly going over or around the Irish defence.
Ross Byrne, making his full debut, must have surveyed proceedings shortly after half time and grown jealous of Jack Carty but the Connacht man was thrown into the fray shortly thereafter and his job was akin to the little boy plugging the holes in the dam in Holland. On a day when the problems begun up front, Byrne can’t be to blame but Carty’s selection against Wales suggests that his selection, injury aside, is a done deal.
Of course, this decision is predicated on the fact that Joey Carberry will have recovered in time, and, if he doesn’t then this decision becomes moot and both inexperienced out halves will travel to Japan as cover for a yet to be seen, Johnny Sexton.
Despite the fact they were a step ahead in their progress and playing to a home crowd, England should go to Japan marginally behind New Zealand as favourites. However, any concerns over having to face an England team bloated on confidence should be parked for the foreseeable future, particularly with an ebullient Warren Gatland and Wales waiting in the wings tomorrow.
Wales are resting more than half their starting fifteen, giving full debuts to two players, Owen Lane and Rhys Carre, and a first start to out-half, Jarrod Evans. Still, while the task on paper isn’t as daunting as last week, Wales look have picked largely from where they left off in March and the players and fans will be desperate to give Gatland a winning send-off in his last home game as Wales coach.
Ireland have two matches and realistically three weeks to get things right. The result on Saturday should not be viewed through the prism of past failings, or certainly no earlier than 2015. This is Joe Schmidt’s second time round, we know he is leaving and yet it feels like the team has fallen flat since the turn of the year.
Four years ago, Ireland were undone by what appeared to be a lack of depth. For the last two years, the depth in this Irish squad has been trumpeted so where lies the explanation, apart from the fact that depth generally dissipates when you have to actively call on it.
There are two schools of thought on how to approach the Six Nations or, indeed, the Rugby Championship in the year of a Rugby World Cup. The first, which applies almost exclusively to New Zealand, is that you try out as many players and combinations, with the overarching intention of winning, of course. The second, which applies to everyone else, and as succinctly put by Jay Rock, and, by Clive Woodward last week is to win every game. That was the plan England put in place in 2002/2003 with each victory instilling deeply ingrained belief and tenacity. We’ve seen how the beating by England in February seemingly crushed the confidence of an Irish team who were only three months removed from a brilliant victory over New Zealand.
Ireland were massively successful on the back of a game plan which they could only dream of for years, able to physically overpower the likes of England and South Africa. After being turned inside out in Dublin, Cardiff and now London, what will Schmidt do?
Controlling the ball doesn’t really matter if all you can offer is static one out runners or an shift of the ball wide without penetrating through the central area of the pitch. We’re beating the same monotonous drum here but beyond offering banalities like ‘In Joe We Trust’ or that something is being held back – we’d suggest everything at this stage – pundits and ex-players alike seem to at a loss.
We are all aware of the impeccable attention to detail that Schmidt applies to his game plan and the fact his team is – akin to NFL players – tasked with absorbing mines of information with a view to making in-game decisions based on what they see. Oxymoronically, it seems that players get cut adrift if they try something risky – often known as an offload – and it doesn’t come off. This was fine when we were able to carry and clear impeccably but now that teams are gang tackling – throwback to Wellington in 2011 – and steaming up quickly, the attack looks devoid of ideas.
Unlike the rest of us, Schmidt, his coaches and the Irish squad are not in the business of overreacting so you suspect that while they were chastened after last week, they possess an unerring belief that they can turn things around quickly.
Ireland aren’t the only team with problems – South Africa have had a fairly tumultuous week – but more than anyone given our World Cup pedigree, or lack thereof, the situation needs to be ameliorated before the plane leaves for Asia.
There are questions over hooker, back row, centre and our captain, not to mention Joey Carberry’s ankle. Moreover, there is the fact that we haven’t beaten a top six team in 2019. That alone should provide Ireland with enough motivation tomorrow. After last weekend Ireland should forget about learnings and work-ons. Just win.
Straight Up Prediction: Ireland by 4