In sports, every good run comes to an end. The Sir Alex Ferguson era came to an end with Manchester United in football, Clive Woodward’s England team went off the rails after winning the 2003 World Cup and France’s fortunes quickly turned sour when Bernard Laporte resigned as French coach in 2007.
The Guy Noves era in French rugby has got off to a good start with a 10-9 victory over Ireland at the Stade De France, making it two wins from two for the former Toulouse coach, and while it’s too early to tell if French rugby is back, we may have to re-adjust our thinking with regards to this current Irish side, but before we assess the current problems, let’s see if we can try and avoid repeating history.
The post-Rugby World Cup aftermath has not been kind to Irish coaches over the last decade with Eddie O’Sullivan famously sacked just one year after winning the Triple Crown in 2007, while Declan Kidney endured a similar faith with two back-to-back poor seasons in charge of Ireland after upsetting Australia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Ireland would go on to lose to Wales in the quarter-finals that year but the following season proved to be a disaster with Ireland winning just twice in the Six Nations before being trounced 60-0 by the All Blacks that summer. Kidney was duly sacked the following year and the Joe Schmidt era began and Irish rugby took off.
Back-to-back Six Nations Championships later and a growing general consensus that this was Ireland’s greatest ever opportunity to make a serious run at the Rugby World Cup naturally heightened expectations and Irish fans started to dream. Typically, Ireland lost to Argentina, Paul O’Connell retired and Peter O’Mahony was ruled out for the entire Six Nations.
Which brings us up to where we are now. Two games in, no wins and and we can start to see the process may be starting to repeat itself.
Schmidt has been too good of a coach over the last couple of seasons to start pontificating on the beginning of the end, but the facts remain, Ireland have not got off to a great start in this year’s competition and there are a couple of genuine concerns with the level of play.
Firstly, Ireland’s scrum has gone from solid to wildly unstable with 35-year-old tighthead prop Nathan White consistently exposed against a far superior French scrum. His replacement, Tadgh Furlong, did not fare too much better and it leaves Schmidt in a position where he is waiting on the return of a 36-year-old prop in Mike Ross, who is returning from a hamstring injury. Not great.
Ireland were extremely lucky to not concede a penalty try after three straight scrum collapses in front of their own posts against France, with Ireland’s scrum now a glaring weakness that opposing teams will surely target. If there is no immediate solution to fix their problems at scrum time then Ireland will continue to be punished in this area.
Secondly, Ireland continue to defend very narrowly with their tight defence putting a lot of pressure on the wingers to make one-on-one tackles in isolated situations. Argentina continually exposed Ireland in this area in the World Cup and luckily for Schmidt, France and Wales have not been able to replicate the Argentinian’s success in this area.
Thirdly, and most worryingly, serious question marks must be raised over Schmidt’s selections with an alarmingly low number of Ulster players in the Irish squad. Ulster moved to the top of the Pro 12 last night with a 13-10 win over Glasgow and were the best performing Irish team in Europe this season. They had only three players in Ireland’s matchday 23 in the loss against France, with Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and Jared Payne the only Ulstermen selected.
Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe would be near automatic inclusions if they were healthy, but the omissions of Stuart McCloskey and Paddy Jackson is unacceptable given that they have been the form 10-12 axis in the country this season.
Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw are worthy of their places in the starting side, but there must be serious questions raised as to how Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden were selected ahead of Jackson and McCloskey, who Stephen Ferris has described as ‘the form centre in Europe this season’.
Granted, there are a large number of injuries that have affected Schmidt’s options with the loss of O’Mahony, O’Connell and now Sean O’Brien. But, with that said, the New Zealander has made questionable decisions over the personnel he can control and if similar problems continue to persist, we may need to start lowering our expectations of what we expect of this Irish team.
Perception and reality are two completely different things, and the reality is Ireland is struggling and there seems to be no easy fix to their problems.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena