Irish Independent journalist Rúaidhrí O’Connor made the very valid point after the last warm up that if we were going to be so OTT reactionary after the loss in Twickenham, then by rights we had to be equally optimistic after the display against Wales in the Aviva. Admittedly, I am taking the piss a little with the title on this post but what prompted me to write this in the first place is that I wanted to bring some measured optimism to how it all looks after game one. Here it goes.
Ireland were pretty awful at times in 2019. I was unfortunate enough to be in Cardiff at that last game in the Six Nations and it was just downright depressing (side note, Cardiff is an absolutely cracking city and the Welsh fans are some of the best in the world, made a miserable day wonderful, nice one). Ireland were rudderless, in the most literal sense of the word, as leaders failed across the pitch and no meaningful game plan could be seen. Things were looking damn grim and that’s even whilst omitting the fact that our omnishambles of a performance was against a Welsh side who went on to seal a Grand Slam. It was without a doubt the lowest ebb of the Schmidt era.
Fast forward to August and after a non event game against Italy comes the Twickenham horror show. I’m not trying for some sort of retrospective “told ya so” angle here but I really wasn’t all that bothered by Twickenham. A lot of that is to do with Schmidt and the eternal belief that he has a plan. There’s no way that result against England was part of the plan but it was definitely part of the preparation. Schmidt has been accused in the past of not being flexible and sticking too rigidly to pre-set ideas. For me that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Granted, he sends his teams out on the day with a plan and they do stick to it firmly, however what he does in the run up to these games is all about adaptability. With both Leinster and now Ireland he has spoken before about identifying strengths in the given teams or countries he works in and focusing on perfecting them, rather than trying to make teams play in some new style that is the antithesis of their own. From there he is happy to win ugly or, in the case of Twickenham, lose disastrously as long as he and the team learn from the experience.
Fast forward again to that final game in the Aviva before they jet off for Japan and Ireland suddenly show the skills that saw them take out all in their path in 2018. Much has been made about the need for teams to peak at the right time for World Cups and though I don’t buy into all of it, it is correct to say that finding and maintaining form at the right time is something Ireland have never achieved in previous years.
2007 saw Ireland rising to a peak in that year’s Six Nations but a poor selection of warm up games coupled with top players being kept on ice meant they hit the World Cup totally stale. 2011 undoubtedly saw Ireland peak against Australia and the ridiculous out half swapping exercise backfired massively against Wales in the quarters. Last time out, injuries aside, Ireland simply played their quarter final a week early. The simple layout of that pool ultimately worked horribly against them with the only real test coming right at the end. Some have speculated that is the best schedule to work on to bring things to a boil right before the knock outs but I disagree. If the squad has not been presented with any real challenges until the final pool game it does mean the front line players have hit the ground running right on time, but it also means that they have had no time on the field together beforehand in any meaningful fashion.
Which brings me to the ultimate positive for Ireland this year. Scotland unquestionably stood as the toughest match of the pool and they were up first. Granted, they bottled it something fierce but still, Ireland were in top form. Poor T1 teams are easily beaten by anyone but poor T1 teams are only comfortably beaten with a 20 point margin by the best teams. Ireland now meet the hosts Japan on Saturday and you would imagine the win isn’t in doubt there but I would argue it will be a tougher test than Scotland given how the latter performed on Sunday. Russia then presents some respite for the top players but a 9 day turnaround to Samoa should mean every hand in the squad is up by then.
Ireland currently face a Quarter Final against a revitalised South Africa and will need every player in the squad fit and to have decent game time under their belt if they are to challenge the Springboks and this pool schedule allows for that excellently. Samoa will be the biggest worry given how many heavy hitters they have in their squad. Ireland fans are going to wince then immediately pray after every tackle.
Really everyones burning question around Ireland and this World Cup is – what’s so different this time? 2007 and 2015 saw us 2nd or 3rd favourites there or thereabouts. 2011 saw the Golden Generation peaking. Every single one the same, not a semi final on sight. I’m afraid that on the topic of why this year is different I don’t have an answer you’ll like, as the only answer is Joe Schmidt. With all respect to Andy Farrell I don’t think the men’s Irish rugby team will ever have a better coach at the helm. It’s not only his smarts in the game but all of the work he has made happen across the entire organisation. The early identification of players he has an eye to including in his plans. The work with the provinces, though at times it could be tetchy. I’ve no doubt the man has made mistakes in his 6 years at the helm. Some have been evident for us as spectators. Some have been behind closed doors in an administrative capacity.
He is human though, as are the players. Besides some bad days like New Zealand in 2013, failing to wrap up the series in South Africa in 2016 and Murrayfield in 2017, Schmidt has literally achieved everything he could with Ireland, bar one. He did the same with Leinster, literally winning every trophy that he could. Even at that, besides this year’s Six Nations, the losses with Ireland have been mostly narrow and can somewhat be explained away with injuries etc. The history books need to be thrown out, this is the time. If he can’t do it (it being at least a semi final appearance), then I would happily declare that nobody can and it is just never meant to be for Irish Rugby. I refuse to believe it will never happen, do you?