Toulouse lifting the Top 14 title on Saturday signalled the end of the northern hemisphere club season but the lengthy nature of the French campaign aside, many of Europe’s elite players will be getting back to work soon.
Today, Ireland have reconvened at their Carton House base as they begin their preparations for their World Cup opener against Scotland on September 22 in Yokohama – 97 days away.
Much of the work over the coming weeks will be concentrated on strength & conditioning and fitness to get the players back up to speed after they enjoyed some time off over the last few weeks but more importantly, to prepare them for the challenges that present themselves with playing in a tournament on the other side of the world in an unfamiliar environment.
And time will no doubt be set aside too, for the players to review and reflect on their disappointing Six Nations campaign.
The biggest challenge which faces Joe Schmidt over the coming weeks will be to get his players into a frame of mind which was on par with their superb 2018.
From the moment Jamie George’s lineout over the top found an on-rushing Manu Tuilagi with just 40 seconds on the clock in the opening match of the 2019 Six Nations, Ireland looked a shadow of the team which performed so brilliantly just a few months earlier when they beat the All Blacks.
50 seconds after that Tuilagi carry, Jonny May went over in the corner as silence descended on 50,000 Irish supporters, many of whom were still making their way to their seats and were expecting a win over the old enemy.
Except for a 60-minute period against a poor France side in Dublin, Ireland struggled to implement their game plan to the same successful effect than they did in 2018. Three wins against Scotland, Italy and France secured third place but what was most glaring throughout the five games was the inability to execute the cornerstones of the Irish gameplan.
The setpiece, especially the lineout, misfired at crucial times, basic handling errors were common but perhaps most importantly, it was the inability to problem solve on the pitch in the white-heat of battle which is the biggest cause of concern – a lack of direction.
For Schmidt, he would have spent the 93 days since the 25-7 humbling to Wales in Cardiff meticulously analysing everything that went into that Six Nations campaign; preparation, selection, game-plan, man-management, tactics – little will escape the lens of his microscope.
For a head coach who prides himself on detail, the long run-in to Ireland’s World Cup opener will be of huge benefit. He will have plenty of time to work with the 44-man training squad which he selected a few weeks ago.
Many Irish supporters who look at the glass half full will say that it’s good for Ireland to suffer a dip in form in the Six Nations instead of when they line out at the International Stadium Yokohama.
However, this will count for nothing unless Schmidt and his management team can find the solutions and implement and communicate them correctly over the next few weeks.
There are some positives for the Ireland head coach as he begins work with his players today. He has a relatively clean bill of health to work from as only Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien have been ruled out of the World Cup.
He has players returning such as Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion who were missing for large chunks of the Six Nations.
There are many players who are either returning or are currently in good form. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, who were both well under par during the early parts of this year, are closing in on their best after their end-of-season campaigns at provincial level. Then you also have the Leinster back-row trio of Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock who were all excellent in the closing stages of the season.
One of the benefits of Ireland’s injury woes throughout the Six Nations was that Schmidt utilised 36 players throughout the seven weeks of action. This will increase the competition for places and it has also provided more Test-match experience for Ireland’s fringe players which could prove a vital factor when proceedings kick off in Japan.
In the aftermath of Ireland’s third-place finish in the Six Nations, both players and coaching staff were consistent in their message that they are not a million miles off where they need to be.
The true distance won’t be known until Ireland begin their World Cup campaign but whether Ireland are close or far away will be determined by the work which begins today.