Gerry Thornley’s end of term report: Did Ireland's peaks come too early?

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scores a try despite Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith of New Zealand during the Guinness November Series win over the All Blacks. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The season just gone lingers into the next campaign, and particularly the World Cup, with barely a pause for breath, especially for the players and backroom staff. The two are inextricably linked and with regard to Ireland, one question remains.

Did they peak too early?

That is the undeniable and palpable feeling out there. Following on from the all-conquering 2017-18 season – what with Ireland’s Slam and Leinster’s double – the performance against New Zealand last November now makes 2018 look like something of a high point.

It prompted all manner of giddiness, and a peak in booking flights and hotels to Japan. “We’re going to win the World Cup,” was the undoubted subtext.

Following on from the anti-climactic Six Nations, bookended by a hugely motivated and vengeful England producing their peak performance of the season at the Aviva Stadium and Wales shutting the door under an open roof, so to speak, we reset to doom and gloom again mode.

No less than in the wake of beating the All Blacks, the reaction to the Six Nations was probably over the top as well. Beating New Zealand at home in a friendly did not make Ireland the number one side in the world, no matter what Steven Hansen said. The world rankings and the World Cup betting both said otherwise.

Jacob Stockdale and Joey Carbery celebrate at the final whistle after Ireland beat the All Blacks in November. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Jacob Stockdale and Joey Carbery celebrate at the final whistle after Ireland beat the All Blacks in November. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Similarly, losing two games (taking the tally to just three in 24 matches, a body of work unparalleled in Irish rugby history) did not suddenly make this a bad Irish side.

Ireland had bigger fish to fry than another Six Nations title, both beforehand and next up in Japan. Let’s put it another way. Were Ireland better off beating New Zealand and not retaining the Six Nations, or vice versa? In the context of the World Cup, assuredly the former.

Beating New Zealand on home soil was almost imperative. Otherwise, Chicago could have been more readily dismissed as a one-off. So it is that in this World Cup cycle Ireland have a 2-1 record over the back-to-back World Champions, and in that time there have also been big away wins over South Africa, Australia, England and France as well as at home. No Irish team has ever put together a better body of work in a World Cup cycle.

They also still go to Japan with that third Slam in history from last season. And at least they beat Scotland, their opponents in that pivotal pool opener, last February in Murrayfield.

On top of this, the players regrouped impressively with their provinces, and while all finished with some baggage, at least Leinster re-enforced the psychological edge from Edinburgh by beating Glasgow on their biggest day out in their home city last Saturday. That was equally important.

There remains some scar tissue, but this is now more physical than mental, given Dan Leavy’s badly injured knee and Sean O’Brien’s hip operation deny Ireland the explosiveness and X-factor that these two would have brought to the World Cup.

But otherwise the preliminary, 44-man training squad suggests that when it is whittled down to 31 Ireland will be bringing probably the strongest group of players they’ve ever brought to a World Cup.

Some very good players will not make the initial cut, although some of them are sure to be called up later, but this squad will have more proven strength in depth than was the case four years ago when O’Brien, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton and Jared Payne were all ruled out of the quarter-final against Argentina.

And while no more than 13 at most from the squad of four years ago will be able to board the plane to Tokyo, as Gordon D’Arcy pointed out during the week, there remains an experienced core group who will be competing in their third World Cup, namely Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Keith Earls, and ala Richie McCaw four years ago, in Rory Best’s case a fourth. There’s also the high achieving new breed of James Ryan and co.

Talking to the Second Captains podcast last week, Eoin Reddan spoke of how the warm-up games can catch out some players who’ve never figured in them, as had happened in 2011. Come the 2015 warm-up games he learned to treat the first of them akin to a World Cup final.

Reddan added that finding form, individually and collectively, will be vital for the Irish squad in the quartet of warm-up games against Italy (home), England (away), and Wales both away and at home. That would seem to be particularly true in light of how the Six Nations finished in Cardiff.

Then again, Ireland lost all four warm-up games in 2011 before proceeding to win all four pool games in New Zealand, including that victory over Australia in Eden Park.

You just never can tell.

But of one thing we can be sure, far from being a lame duck head coach, Joe Schmidt will have been burning the midnight oil in the wake of the Six Nations.

Conscious that this will be his last coaching gig, perhaps forever more and certainly with this Ireland team, as David Nucifora recently put it: Schmidt is in Joe mode.

Bundee Aki dejected after the loss to Wales in the Six Nations. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Bundee Aki dejected after the loss to Wales in the Six Nations. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

He’ll also realise that, perhaps a little unfairly, this World Cup will go a long way to defining his gilded, six-and-a-half year tenure. And most of all, no defeat in those six and a half years still grates quite like that quarter-final against Argentina. Imagine how many nights that kept him awake.

Schmidt, Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby, Greg Feek et al will ensure this squad lacks nothing in its readiness for the 2019 World Cup.

Then we will have all the answers.

Ireland

The good

Beat the All Blacks on home soil for the first time last November and thus are the only side to have beaten the back-to-back World Champions twice (losing once) in this World Cup cycle. Also 2-2 with South Africa and 3-1 in the Six Nations against Scotland, which was augmented by Leinster beating Glasgow last Saturday. The foundations of a solid scrum, lineout (for the most part) maul, breakdown work, defence all remained in largely good working order, and more strike plays than most.

The not so good

Beaten up physically a little by England, which seemed particularly ominous with the All Blacks or, perhaps even more so, Springboks looming in the World Cup last eight. Lineout still seems to hinge on Devin Toner’s presence. Could do with more offloading, more variety in kicking game and more effective counter-attacking/transitioning from defence to attack.

Sean O’Brien is tackled by Tom Curry during the Six Nations loss to England. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Sean O’Brien is tackled by Tom Curry during the Six Nations loss to England. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The future

No Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy is a loss. Signs of key men playing at their best in warm-up games would be a boost, and still go to World Cup having won 21 of their last 24 matches and with the makings of a very good side, while expectations have been lowered. May be no bad thing.

Connacht

The good

Transformed from this point a year ago. Andy Friend’s arrival has injected a more positive atmosphere around the Sportsground, with Connacht earning five more wins and 22 points than a year ago to reach the Pro14 playoffs and qualify for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. Jarrad Butler has assumed the John Muldoon captaincy seamlessly, Tom Farrell is another shrewd signing and Jack Carty has matured into a consistently performing, game breaking outhalf. They juggled their resources impressively and it’s doubtful they even had such strength in depth when winning the Pro12 in 2016.

Connacht’s Jack Carty scores a try against Cardiff Blues. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht’s Jack Carty scores a try against Cardiff Blues. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

The not so good

Their failure to close out an overdue Dublin win over Leinster in an RDS festive thriller must have rankled, and their defeat by Ulster in the quarter-finals underlined the relative lack of big ball-carrying oomph up front.

The future

Off the pitch they’ve come through a lengthy and convoluted process to agree upon a revamp of the Sportsground which has Government backing. But they’re understandably impatient, as their facilities are well behind the others. So when will the funds be released by Shane Ross? Less hit by the World Cup than most others in the Pro14, they can approach next season with a new-found optimism.

Leinster

The good

Despite their player drain, reaching both finals for a second successive year was a remarkable achievement. Using 57 players while sailing serenely to the Pro14 semi-finals underlined their unrivalled strength in depth. Overcoming their defeat by Saracens to beat Munster and Glasgow away on successive weekends demonstrated their resilience and unity as well as quality, and ensured them of the currency that defines them, silverware.

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton with the Pro14 trophy. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster’s Johnny Sexton with the Pro14 trophy. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The not so good

Brilliant at times, think of the five European home games, the Hunted Ones were not as consistent as the season before. The loss of Isa Nacewa, Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy left them looking a little light at the business end of the season and the departure of Sean O’Brien and Jack McGrath continues the drain on experience and leadership.

The future

Any organisation would struggle with that drain, and the IRFU policy of spreading (Leinster’s) resources has placed more reliance on the production line than ever. Better equipped than in 2015-16, when they lost five of six pool matches in Europe, nevertheless another World Cup season will assuredly stretch that depth, and collective mental strength, whether Ireland perform well or not. Time for the likes of Ciaran Frawley, Conor O’Brien, Caelan Doris, Scott Penny and Hugo Deenan to step up another level.

Munster

The good

Reaching both semi-finals for a third season running is not to be sniffed at, all the more so considering the Conor Murray-Joey Carbery partnership ultimately only had eight outings together. There were some eye-catching highs along the way, that Carbery-inspired win in Kingsholm, getting the better of today’s Premiership finalists Exeter over two matches, the quarter-final win away to Edinburgh thanks to a vintage Keith Earls brace and a win over Leinster in an unbeaten home season. Best defence in Pro14 and European group stages too. Hard to credit, but it actually was a season of progress.

The not so good

Two more semi-final defeats for the third year running merely made reaching a final look more like a glass ceiling, as their straight-running attacking game seemed increasingly blunt by the season’s end. The departure of two home-grown assistant coaches was less than ideal and left the organisation looking a little rudderless.

Munster’s Conor Murray stands dejected after the Champions Cup loss to Saracens. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster’s Conor Murray stands dejected after the Champions Cup loss to Saracens. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The future

The World Cup, in which they’ll have their fair chunk of players, looks particularly ill-timed given the vacuum in their coaching staff, albeit if the right people are hired it could be transformational.

Ulster

The good

A European quarter-final and a Pro14 semi-final under a new head coach who came in a week before kick-off, so ensuring qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup, represents progress. New signings settled in well, and Marcell Coetzee must have felt like one too after finally enjoying an injury disrupted season. The South African number eight, Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey gave their game real oomph, and they all couldn’t have given much more against Leinster at the Aviva.

Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee scores a try against Connacht. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee scores a try against Connacht. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The not so good

After peaking in those two quarter-finals against Leinster and the must-win Pro14 quarter-final against Connacht in a Kingspan farewell for Rory Best and Darren Cave, they went to the well and found it had run dry against Glasgow, and so their season ended with that 50-20 defeat in Scotstoun. Squad depth remains an issue.

The future

They won’t be as badly hit by the World Cup as others, but they will still be missing key men and, with their home crowd as well as squad in mind, they won’t have Best’s talismanic presence. Still, they should improve again after a full pre-season under McFarland and his assistants, while Bill Johnston is a very interesting signing.