Oh Joe, you cunning tactician you. Making us miss your presence less come the end of the World Cup with a subpar performance that flew in the face of all expectations. Ok, there’s a chance I’m still in denial. Who wouldn’t be though right? That was one of the worst Irish performances of the Schmidt era, capitalised on brilliantly by one of the best I’ve seen from England in a long long time. So what happened and what happens next?
Last week I harped on about how Ireland start slow in tournaments, and this year’s Six Nations has been no exception. Rather surprisingly, Joe Schmidt himself confirmed as much when he spoke publicly about how the mood from the players didn’t seem to be as hyped as say last November for example. This needs to be fixed, ASAP. The upcoming World Cup is arguably going to present the hardest opening fixture Ireland have ever had to face, with Scotland variable but dangerous these days. I have seen many cite this as an element of the Schmidt era too and to that I would say no dice. Go back beyond Schmidt, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008 and 2007 all feature less than inspiring opening rounds from Ireland. In particular, both 2008 and 2010 nearly featured Italy’s first ever Six Nations win against us. Ironically enough, said milestone was finally reached by the Azzuri in 2013. That same year Ireland conversely recorded their best ever opening round victory/scoreline against Wales (though it has to be said that whole game was just insanity from start to end, and Wales went on to become the last team so far to win the Six Nations with an opening round defeat).
It is unquestionably a mental issue, I don’t think anyone disputes that, and for my money it is the one remaining hole in the complete picture of this Ireland team as we have come to know them now. Putting aside the previous poor starts, the key problem this year was unquestionably related to panic setting in. Whatever about conceding an early try and the confidence taking a hit, the biggest problem with Ireland’s performance on Saturday was that once they went behind, all composure was abandoned. Cool heads were hard to find, and as the game wore on Ireland did not adapt as calmer minds would. The talk of a Plan B isn’t entirely accurate, no team takes to the pitch with two clear game plans. Above all else, you barely have time to perfect one in the build-up to each game. Plan B is to adjust, not transform entirely. Certainly from the off Ireland had no plans to kick for territory, and even the bombs weren’t all that potent. As the game continued they should have adjusted to test England in other areas of the pitch, but they stuck too rigidly to the blueprint. This is not due to overcoaching or Schmidt’s attention to detail though, it’s because leaders like Best, Sexton, O’Mahony and Murray had some of their worst Irish outings in a long time and none of them were able to raise a hand and say what needed to be said.
It is somewhat redundant for me to say “Not to take away from England” too, they were spectacular. Of course they were, they have an incredible squad and are just coming out the other side of a fairly rough 12 months. Eddie Jones was also playing with a mostly full deck for the first time ever (am I right in saying that’s the first time Eddie Jones has ever been able to field Manu Tuilagi in the Six Nations?). What does remain to be seen over the next few weeks though is whether or not England are back to their 2016 form or if this was a once off performance, akin to what Ireland used to regularly throw out against them and other sides down the years, rarely backing it up either end of said fixture. What can be said is that England definitely can’t play like that week in week out without exacting a massive toll on themselves physically. Also hats off to John Mitchell, no better way to back up the verbal grenades than with a backline that flairs like that.
So for Ireland it is now make or break in Murrayfield, which is probably the worst fixture to have lined up when you need to course correct after a stumble. The last ten years has seen us notch up 3 wins out of a possible 6, with two of those wins being cagey at best. In fact, the best ever Irish performance in Murrayfield was under enormous pressure, back in 2015 when the championship was on the line via points difference. So maybe we should look for omens. As so many have remarked since Saturday, you don’t become a bad team overnight and Schmidt certainly hasn’t become a bad coach all of a sudden. Selection will be very interesting. With Ringrose out Schmidt can either move Henshaw back to 12 (as seems likely based on info this evening) and bring Kearney back in. Alternatively, with an eye to the World Cup, Schmidt could gamble with Chris Farrell or Will Addison, though both of those players have certainly given mostly excellent accounts of themselves in their few international appearances. Maybe we really have forgotten how many rubs of the green 2018 afforded us and as a result this reality check will be welcome in the long run. By comparison to last year Schmidt has had Henshaw with only a couple dozen minutes under his belt going into the Six Nations, Sexton out for a month beforehand, Conor Murray making a first international appearance in over 6 months. The efficiency and clinical nature of Ireland last year could have fooled you into thinking that nothing can phase them but ultimately, no amount of depth will leave you totally immune to injuries as they come. In all, the Six Nations isn’t lost on the opening weekend and Ireland still hold enough of their destiny in their own hands. England will need to register a loss, preferably to Wales without a bonus point, and we could be looking at another Super Saturday. We could well also be looking at the first Six Nations to be decided by bonus points too but for now, let’s just look at Scotland this Saturday and no more.