They say the definition of insanity is performing the same action repeatedly and expecting change. Well, 9 World Cups and 7 best finishes being quarter finals is pretty insane. It is getting tired. It is getting tougher to take. It is getting harder to excuse away.
I may not represent the Irish rugby media but I am one of those private schooled losers yer man keeps talking about and I am here to say – Ireland were f**king abysmal. I really am taken aback by all the focus on Joe Schmidt and certain people saying we now know it was all nonsense that he had something up his sleeve. How can we ever know the answer to that question when every half decent period of Irish possession rapidly collapsed with a knock on? This was the worst Irish performance for 20 years or so and little to none of that blame can be laid at Joe Schmidt or Andy Farrell’s door step. Sure enough they are responsible for the players being mentally ready and upping their workload too much during training could maybe hamper their mental preparation but there were too many experienced chiefs in this team to be hand holding to that level.
We heard ad nauseam about how this was a plan from the beginning, how Schmidt has been cultivating the team and ensuring depth. One thing I would like to point out before becoming overly negative too soon is that Schmidt has left a legacy on Irish rugby from the ground up that we will reap dividends from for years to come. We all focus on what he did with the senior men’s team but there has now been fundamental alterations made to the entire structure and if the IRFU can just finish that off with decent efforts to bring rugby outside the common hotspots in the country, this work will be extremely worthwhile. That said, if it is true that this World Cup has been plotted for the entire cycle and the aim was to have Ireland at their very best once they hit Japan – what the hell happened then?
When watching games I try to leave it until the last minute before I let any lingering notion creep in that the result is slipping away. Once you’re within 10 points or less with 5 minutes remaining anything can happen. Though I’d never admit it at the time, I knew the game was over against New Zealand about 5 – 10 minutes after kick off. I haven’t been able to bring myself to rewatch it, life’s too short, so forgive me some timing inaccuracies but within the opening 10 minutes or so there was a missed touch from Sexton, an extremely soft try conceded and a repeat of a horror show moment we had already seen against Russia two weeks previously. Richie Mo’unga hoists up an admittedly perfect garryowen and neither Keith Earls nor Rob Kearney could decide who was getting it so the ball flops about wildly in the Irish 22. It epitomised how undercooked Ireland were against New Zealand and we saw the exact same thing happen against Russia. I shouldn’t be talking about this. Ireland have had a fantastic reputation under the high ball for 10/15 years at this stage, even in games where it is all going wrong we’ve had that under control usually. People talk about not needing flash rugby to win games, just get the basics right. My own rugby career was pretty short lived and entailed a total of 2 years, 1 whilst I was in primary school and my first year of secondary school, but the first and most vital piece of information that was bestowed on me was how to catch a ball.
I’m not here to totally vindicate Schmidt, he definitely got things wrong in this World Cup and there have been some misfires during his six and a half years with Ireland. Thing is, whilst I agree that he absolutely should not have two World Cup quarter final exits be his lasting legacy of his time with Ireland, any missteps he made as a coach between 2015 and 2019 all get ignored in favour of the end result. He got a few things wrong this World Cup that he has as much admitted himself. It is now out there in the open that Ireland spent this years Six Nations with an eye on the World Cup and that elusive semi final. I don’t really have a problem with that but are you telling me that’s the first time they did that? Every coach and team will always give you the “one game at a time” and “we’re just focussed on next week” shtick but are you seriously telling me he didn’t allow the squad to ever even dream about Japan? I get the notion of shielding the players from that advanced pressure and leaving it up to the backroom to stress on it instead but given we saw 15 men take to the field like scared children maybe they should have been acclimatised to the stress sooner than the Monday before the semi final kick off.
But with Schmidt, what blame besides the above do we lay at his feet? He can’t run out on the pitch himself and individually give each player a Hallmark style inspirational quote in their ear when he sees them making some of the most basic handling errors I have ever seen. I honestly find it laughable at times how many former players and pundits are talking up the majesty of New Zealand. Their final try was their 14 men against our 15 and they scored an overlap try on the right wing, if memory serves it was nearly a 3 on 1. No amount of All Blacks superiority causes that to happen. New Zealand barely broke a sweat, it just so happens that they are of such a high caliber that even in that state of mind they are a cracking team. That needs to be the end of the focus on them in the context of this game. Ireland would have lost to any T1 team on the day and even Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and teams like Georgia and Romania would have at least kept it close. You can’t make that many mistakes and expect to beat anyone.
This has all been a little negative, more than I planned it to be if I’m honest. For that reason I would stress that I am solely talking about Ireland’s World Cup 2019 campaign here. The praise I’ve held for Schmidt and this Ireland team over the last four years still stands. Something has got to change though. Gavin Cummiskey, a journalist who I rarely find myself agreeing with on all things rugby, made the point on the Added Time podcast this week that we need to move away from two Dublin schools being the backbone of the production line got Irish rugby. Back in 2016 I wrote that I was afraid the win over New Zealand wpuod accelerate our progress unnaturally and give the impression we had progressed further than we had at the time. For me that is coming home to roost massively. I worry that the IRFU were duped by it too. The future of Irish rugby still looks extremely bright given the talent that hasn’t yet got a sniff of a senior cap yet and the off situation we find ourselves in of having a succession plan in place is exciting. That said, the blind faith is getting harder to pull off and will only get worse.