Easterby confident Ireland can still make their mark in Japan
Forwards coach says squad can regain real momentum with a good display against Samoa
Conor Murray lifts weights during an Ireland gym session in advance of the Samoa game at Shirouzuoike Park, Fukuoka, Japan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It’s the truth that dare not speak its name. Ireland’s World Cup, and with it the Joe Schmidt reign, Rory Best’s tenure as captain et al, could all be over come Saturday evening in Japan.
For sure, it shouldn’t come to that. Ireland should beat Samoa in Fukuoka on Saturday (kick-off 7.45pm local time/11.45am Irish) and advance to the quarter -finals. But this is not quite where they wanted to be.
Had Ireland beaten Japan in their second game they’d have come into the final weekend of the pool stages knowing that a win of any description against Samoa would have seen them top the group and earn a quarter-final on Sunday week against, in all probability, South Africa.
In reality, Ireland need to beat Samoa with a bonus point and the Scots to derail the Brave Blossoms in order to win Pool A, or else they are consigned to a quarter-final against the back-to-back champions New Zealand on Saturday week in Yokohama.
All the while, the threat of elimination has not been entirely removed from the equation, albeit it’s a slim one as not only would it require Ireland losing to Samoa, but Scotland beating Japan as well. In any event, it seems reasonable to wonder if the Irish squad is mentally ready for the challenge as it now presents itself.
“I certainly thought that the group would be tough and we always knew what Scotland had to offer because we’re familiar with them,” admitted Irish forwards coach Simon Easterby yesterday, citing how threatening Japan, Russia and Samoa would also be.
“I think we were pretty aware of the threats and banana skins in this group.
“But I don’t think there’s anyone in the group that doesn’t believe that we’re good enough to get through and make a real mark on this tournament still. There’s been lots written and spoken and debated about some of the performances and rightly so because some of them haven’t been good enough. But I’m a firm believer in having the opportunity to go and challenge ourselves and still make a mark.
“Confidence is not an issue but we still have to go there and perform and make sure that we build a performance on the weekend so that we can then take confidence from that, going into potentially a quarter-final.”
From this point on, Ireland need to win four games in four weeks in order to win the tournament. However, this is something which would have looked a good deal more feasible in 2018 (when putting together winning runs of five and six games either side of a sole defeat) than it has done in 2019, when the longest winning sequences has been three games.
Easterby believes al remains possible.
“I think very rarely do you play the perfect game, even in 2018, when we did what we did, I don’t think we were perfect in every game. Now, you get a bit of momentum and that can continue through two, three, four games and I think that’s a disappointing thing after the Scottish result and performance when we didn’t continue that,” said Easterby, admitting that normally strong aspects of Ireland’s performance dropped off.
“I certainly think that this weekend, if we hit the ground running, there’s no reason why we can’t continue that momentum through the rest of the tournament. But we have to be able to put those fundamental things in our game and get them right nearly every time. You can’t just be right every now and then because against good teams like Samoa and stronger teams we might play throughout the tournament, you just can’t afford to do it.”
So it is then that Ireland are back in familiar 2019 terrain, in that they need a strong performance as well as a victory to revive the momentum they seemed to have built until the defeat by Japan.
“I think it helps, yeah, and I think to be honest we’re going to have to perform well to win,” admitted Easterby.
The Irish squad have looked notably more relaxed for their weekend off and are also in unusually rude health. Only Jordi Murphy sat out yesterday’s session, and he’s due to train tomorrow, with Easterby conceding that the heightened competition, not least in the back row, has added an edge to training.
“I think that’s got to happen. That’s got to be healthy for the rest of the squad, and that’s always been the mark of this group.”
As for the team’s work at the breakdown, Easterby said: “We’ve had our moments. I’d say without the ball we’ve been pretty good and we’ve turned over a good few number of balls and been effective in there. On the attack side there have been a couple of occasions, particularly in the Japanese game, when we didn’t quite get our contact right.
“But that has to be across the board, it’s not like it was 30 years ago when it was just the No 7 or No 6’s job to clean out rucks. Jeez, I think that was all I did when I played, I hardly carried a ball,” recalled Easterby (who won 65 caps between 2000 and 2008 as well as playing two Tests for the Lions), with a rueful smile.
“But the game has changed significantly; everybody has got to do every role. It’s not about the back row, it’s not about the tight five, everyone has to be able to do it. You saw Garry Ringrose clean out one at the weekend.
“Garry’s got great energy but he’s got great technique and great power in that metre to metre and a half space between him and where he wants to take that threat, and I think we see that across the board now. Everyone’s got to be able to do those fundamental things and do them well against teams of this quality.”