Gerry Thornley: Echoes of 2011 revisited for Ireland

Despite patchiness of warm-up performances Schmidt’s squad will be better for them

Joe Marler of England hands off Conor Murray of Ireland during the World Cup warm-up game  at Twickenham. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Joe Marler of England hands off Conor Murray of Ireland during the World Cup warm-up game at Twickenham. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

In keeping with the nature of this phoney war, there has been a palpable sense of Ireland keeping their powder dry, or not showing their hand, over the past month. Four and five weeks out from meeting Italy and France respectively, you’d hope that’s the case anyway.

This is surely not 2007 revisited, when the loss in Murrayfield, the scratchy win over Italy and the battle of Bayonne left the Ireland squad, and more specifically the starting team (aka the 15 “untouchables”), woefully undercooked in terms of cohesion.

More likely, it is akin to 2011, when Declan Kidney and company juggled their resources for four fitful performances and four defeats. Alarm bells were sounding all over the place then, with forecasts of impending doom, whereupon Ireland found some rhythm against the USA and Russia, before beating Australia and thrashing Italy.

Ireland’s pool fixtures have fallen similarly, with the two games against the “minnows” leading on to the two matches against established rugby nations. This has seemingly given Ireland a little more elbow room than say, England and Wales, who clash on the second weekend, or France and Italy, who meet on the first weekend.

Need to perform

Nevertheless, both 2007 and 2011 underline the need for Ireland to perform strongly against both Canada and Romania. When Ireland misfired against Namibia, and Eddie O’Sullivan felt compelled to play the frontline team again against Georgia, they struggled so badly that they were virtually a beaten team by the time they encountered France and Argentina.

At least, akin to 2011, there have been four games, and the vast majority of the 31-man squad have had at least two hit-outs of some description. The exceptions have been the hitherto unused Cian Healy and, to a degree, Tadhg Furlong, who has been limited to two appearances off the bench, and Rob Kearney, who has been confined to one outing. There are a few form issues, not least that of an out-of-sorts Tommy Bowe.

In total, Joe Schmidt used 41 players in the four warm-up games, making 14 changes for the second game against Scotland, another 14 for the Welsh return game, and then another seven for the English game. So establishing cohesion was always going to be tricky.

Second Captains

Taken as a whole, Ireland began their four preparatory games by handsomely beating an under-strength and ill-prepared Welsh side, and even then became disconcertingly porous whenever the game became a little loose. The easy nature of the win felt phoney, even to Joe Schmidt.

That it should elevate Ireland to second in the world rankings, on the same weekend that Australia won the Rugby Championship, somehow felt all wrong, if not quite on the scale of Wales’s rise to the top 10 in the soccer rankings.

Ireland subsequently struggled to subdue a slightly experimental Scotland, who have since generated momentum with a double over Italy and by coming within four minutes of beating France in Paris on Saturday. That game also deflated some of the French optimism generated by their win over England.

The bruising defeat at home to Wales constituted a reality check, and knocked Ireland off the dizzy heights of second in the world - indeed we have now slipped to sixth. Taken in conjunction with the defeat to England, as Paul O’Connell conceded on Saturday, Ireland have performed well short of their normal standards in their last three matches.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the defending, for it is very unlike an Ireland team under the watch of Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss to miss tackles and leak as porously as they have in these four games. Championships are won by defences, the saying goes, and this was underlined by Ireland conceding only three tries in the entirety of last season’s Six Nations title.

Even in the romp away to Wales, Ireland conceded three tries and missed 22 tackles. Against Scotland, another three tries were conceded, along with 21 missed tackles. Things improved at home to Wales, when only one try was conceded and 11 tackles missed, but at Twickenham Ireland were grateful enough to concede only two tries, and there were 26 missed tackles. That’s about 80 missed tackles in four games.

It was especially alarming to see Ireland look so exposed out wide, primarily on their right flank, from the off against England. It’s also difficult to see how this can all be entirely rectified in the five days left on the training ground before facing Canada.

One try apiece

Nor have Ireland shown much going forward in recent weeks, scoring just one try apiece against Wales and England, both emanating from close-in forward pressure and strong finishes by two locks. Against Wales, there was one line break, and against England just two, whereas Wales and England had four and nine.

Ireland also had just three and two offloads, respectively, and while this low figure is not out of character, the missed tackles, defensive glitches, inaccurate breakdown work, lack of potency and intensity is disconcerting, not least because it is so untypical of a Joe Schmidt side.

But better to have all these glitches now than in the tournament. More than anything, what the past five weeks have shown is that the European countries needed the games. Despite the patchiness of all their performances, they’ll be better for them.

And in Ireland’s case, there would be nothing like a commanding, slick and ruthless opening-day win over Canada to set things right again. gthornley@irishtimes.com

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