February 2019: Ireland 20 – 32 England
March 2019: Wales 25-17 Ireland
August 2019: England 57-15 Ireland
September 2019: Japan 19-12 Ireland
England at home, Wales away, England away. And now Japan. It’s not a full-on catastrophe just yet, but if we have any prospects of winning this World Cup, issues need to be addressed.
In a year where Ireland reached the top spot of World Rugby’s rankings, and could still potentially win a World Cup, there have been a number of outings to forget for our national team, none more so than Saturday’s disappointing loss to the Rugby World Cup hosts.
Jamie Joseph’s charges shook up the entire rugby world with a fully deserved victory and leave us with a number of question marks about this Irish team’s ability to reach uncharted land in the form of a semi-final berth in Japan.
In the losses to England (twice) and Wales, our attack has at times looked blunt, and the warning signs of a dramatic loss may have been right in front of our eyes. All rugby teams, at every level, struggle without momentum. Ireland’s gameplan is simple, it’s momentum-based, and it’s straight out of the rugby textbook:
1. Innovative and accurate set-piece launch attack to gain momentum and quick ball.
2. Smart, simple decisions from robust, collision-winning ball-carriers to continue/gain momentum and quick ball.
3. Go to the air and either win it back or win the loose ball… then go back to 2.
This is the same gameplan that saw us beat New Zealand. This is the same backroom team that won the Grand Slam. This is the same squad that led us to number one in the World Rugby rankings. Areas 1 and 3 I think we’ll challenge anyone, it’s number 2 where for some reason against the more physical teams, it’s just really not working for us.
Is Ireland’s phase attack blunt?
Although Japan played some lovely rugby, scored the try on the edge and moved the ball really fluid at times, the difference overall was that they had an extra two or three per cent at collision time. I don’t want to take away from their historic victory, of which they were fully deserving, but we looked tired, and at times short of ideas.
I thought Joey Carbery was correct to kick the ball out at the end to hold onto the bonus point. We finished with Luke McGrath on the left-wing, Jacob Stockdale at full-back, and Jordan Larmour at thirteen. I just could not see us scoring from there. What evidence from the game told us that we were going to work the ball all the way down to the opposite end and rescue a draw? In the end, we were fortuitous to hold onto what could prove to be a pivotal bonus point.
If we have genuine aspirations of winning this tournament, massive improvement is needed. Japan are a decent side, but they are not South Africa, or New Zealand, or England. How are we going to have the answers for top teams like that based on the Japan performance?
The sharp and incisive phase-play that we became accustomed to pre-2019 were pretty much non-existent against Japan. There has to be a reason for it, is it our gameplan? Was it just our energy levels? We are too good to blame the referee. I did think we looked jaded but I think part of how our general play needs to be adapted.
Many have been quick to question squad selection in the aftermath of this loss, and although I think Simon Zebo can offer a lot to any squad, he is not the answer to Ireland’s problems. X-factor is what we need, but the issue with Zebo is that we cannot break the rules unless a player is of world-class elite level á la Johnny Sexton at Racing Metro.
If we are to change our policy, then the player needs to be substantially greater than the talent at our disposal in the current squad. Although Zebo would inject welcome flair and unpredictability to this Irish side, he is not the answer. If Zebo was still playing with Munster, I don’t think he would have been 100% certain to start for Ireland in this World Cup. He would be close, but he’s not a Johnny Sexton or a Conor Murray.
Would his x-factor have been useful against Japan? Most certainly. Is it worth changing our entire selection policy? No.
We are considerably weaker without Johnny Sexton. His strength, aside from his goal-kicking, lies in his ability to steer the team around the pitch, and that was sorely missed against Japan.
Sexton’s ability to help the team manipulate momentum through areas other than out-and-out confrontation or sheer size and mass is of utmost importance to this side, and we lacked direction without him at the helm.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, unfortunately, it now does beg the question… How injured was he? If he was capable of playing and wasn’t fully injured, should Joe have selected him?
How Schmidt Reacts To Defeats
One of my memories of Joe Schmidt as my Ireland coach is that he is incredibly adept at reading the tone of the squad. He is good at assessing how people are feeling, and then managing that in the correct manner. If you play average and you win, he is quick to bring the tone back down. Ireland’s win percentage under Joe is really strong, and there is a perception that he is overly tough on the players. My experience of Joe is that he is constantly trying to drag people down to earth, he doesn’t want them to be above their station.
Quite often when there’s a crushing loss, Joe can see just how devastated the group are and adapt. This loss to Japan is the type of result where he will put his arm around the players and realise that they don’t need to be knocked down a peg. He’ll analyse every aspect of the game and try to understand what exactly the issue was that caused us to be so blunt in attack. He’ll look at his plan, and the team’s execution of said plan. There will be tough video sessions and even tougher conversations, but, knowing Joe, I don’t believe he will be ultra-negative. Quite often when you expect Joe to come down really hard, he doesn’t.
This is still within our hands, but it’s not an absolute catastrophe and Joe will know that. It’s not the time to be hard on the boys, it’s time to pick them back up.
Prospects Moving Forward
The short term focus will be to get back on track and prepare for the Russia game on Thursday. We’ve got six points and have every chance of getting sixteen. This loss is not the end of the world, but it does pose serious questions about our prospects at this tournament.
I’m not alone in being disappointed by the manner of the Irish performance, and optimistic that we can turn it around in the short term, but there is no doubt that I am slightly concerned about our chances of getting to a semi-final and beyond.