Two Irish losses in a row, England roaring back into form on the second of said losses, Scotland running close with France and of course Wales falling one by one against the Italians; it’s safe to say that nobody looks now like they did some weeks back with regards their World Cup condition. All eyes this side of the pond are on Ireland of course, up until three weeks ago running hot amongst the favourites but now the nation’s fears start to creep in. Turns out they’re not invincible after all. Should we have our collective hands hovering over the panic button? Is there a bit of coy work being done behind the scenes? Is this ’07 or ’11 all over again?
Traditionally Ireland have never really run riot in the warm up games ahead of a World Cup. Last time out saw them run it close against France twice, but get a comprehensive smattering from England and lose ugly to Scotland in the first fixture of the four. 2007, well, the less said about the World Cup prep there the better. Had Ireland lost with more convincing displays we would probably say that it’ll all be fine but to have them go down so cheaply, and with some absolutely nightmarish lapses in defence, maybe we could dampen the flames a little. As it stands though, Ireland look far more as if the wheels may be starting to wobble. There has been a lot of tampering with player selection from Schmidt however, more so than by any coach previous and a lot can come down to that. Yet the majority of the tampering was across the first two games, where the two wins were picked up. The double header of Wales followed by England is where the worry has generated here and most importantly, those two losses came with Ireland very much close to complete full strength.
The Irish path to the knock outs is one that works more in their favour than ever before. Two “easy” fixtures against Canada and Romania, followed by a bruiser but likely victory over Italy and then the peak, France in the Millennium Stadium next month. The nature of this run in allows Ireland that certain level of freedom for slow progress, but what should be at the back of everyone’s mind is what happened this time four years ago. Due to their lacklustre effort against the USA in the opening round where they didn’t nab a bonus point, Ireland were still playing for survival come the final game against Italy, even though they had achieved that immense win over Australia. This time out, there can be no excuse for Ireland not at least being qualified in 2nd place come the final game against France, assuming Les Bleus do the job on the Azzurri beforehand. Ireland also failed to obtain a bonus point against the minnows in the disastrous 2007 World Cup, holding Georgia to only a four point margin in the end. It’s safe to say that a team of Ireland’s calibre simply should be getting full return from Romania and Canada, unquestionably.
The big question is then – has Joe been holding back? How long are his sleeves exactly? Looking at the performances, you could certainly have said that against Wales – both times – and Scotland that there was an element of fitness over substance from Ireland. Wins are important, but the real important ones start this weekend. That England game though…Ireland just actually looked like they wanted to win it but couldn’t, if that makes any sense. When you have Dave Kearney putting on a show of that magnitude there can be no question of how important warm up games are to players. As regards an answer to the question though – what the hell is going on? – I don’t think there is one. Under Schmidt, Ireland have been unpredictable if nothing else. There were all those accusations of boring rugby and slow deliberate game plans throughout the last two Six Nations, but then there were days like the Italy fixture last year, France that same year and Scotland earlier this year. There’s a striking attack within this team under the current coaching ticket, no doubt about that, what remains to be seen is whether the edge has dulled or just been put under a sheath until this weekend. Can’t wait.