Gerry Thornley: Anxious Ireland appear to be trying too hard
Momentum Schmidt would have hoped for at this point in a World Cup is absent
Ruddock’s hard-carrying performance against Russia highlighted the need to have him in the mix.
Rory Best is right. This is not the largely joyless campaign of 2007 revisited. This is a much more united squad, far better prepared, with more developed strength in depth and a better body of work behind them. But there are some similarities, not least in somehow insulating themselves from the negativity, anger and even some of the toxic rumour mongering back home.
“It’s very important that we stay positive and we keep going forward,” said Best before, ironically, looking back on the Japan game when he felt Ireland had a false sense of security at 12-3 ahead, stopped playing with sufficient width, played within themselves and lost their discipline. While he felt Ireland maintained their intent to play against Russia on Thursday, conditions contributed to the 18 handling errors.
“We’re under no illusions that we’re not quite where we want to be,” he conceded, “but it’s not even two weeks ago that we felt we were in a really, really good space after the Scotland game. So we’re never as good as everyone thinks we are after games like that, but we also know we’re never as bad as everyone says we are after the game with Japan.”
However, it’s almost impossible to avoid the outside noise, however far removed it may be. As Andrew Conway said after the Scotland game, and as was the case in 2007, the players talk to loved ones and friends back home. Furthermore, unlike 2007, there’s social media, which you’d imagine some at least are doing their damndest to avoid.
The performance against Scotland compounds the sense of understandable disappointment over the campaign thus far, as does the unprecedented deeds of 2018. But it’s not their fault that they built up expectations to a new level. That doesn’t justify the anger.
They lost a game of rugby! To the hosts. And for a myriad of reasons, not all of them even within their own control, namely the contrast in turnarounds, an exceptionally humid day and the lamentable Angus Gardner.
But whatever else, it’s doubtful in the extreme that any of the players involved in that game didn’t empty themselves physically, or that all of the playing and coaching staff haven’t been working their socks off.
You think of Josh van der Flier’s covering work in the back field and Keith Earls’ try-saving chase in the penultimate play against Japan. It’s this work ethic which has been the foundation of a defence which has thus far conceded only 22 points and one try. No, the togetherness and desire to succeed is as strong as it ever was.
Maybe therein lies part of the problem. They wouldn’t be the first team in sporting history whose self-confidence took a jolt and thereafter developed signs of a try-too-hard syndrome. The party line on the Japan defeat is to call it “a blip” but in Ireland’s case, of course, it’s now been four ‘blips’ in 2019.
In their eagerness to present themselves as the first one-off carrier, they are sometimes so eager they are shooting up before the pass is made, then forced to stop so when they receive the ball they are static. Other times they’re just taking the ball statically too often.
Whatever about Ireland peaking in 2018, their performances obliged opposition coaches to examine their game more closely than ever. It’s clear that England did so twice this year, as did Japan, with assistance from Eddie Jones when hosting the Japanese coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown for a week in Pennyhill before England’s ambush in the Aviva Stadium last February.
If Ireland don’t get front foot ball from one of their strike plays and opposing defences slow down the ruck ball for the first three or four phases, their attack can lose shape. Then, as even Russia showed on Thursday, opposing teams can just look to smash Ireland physically.
The breakdown work is lacking the old intent at times, but Rhys Ruddock’s hard-carrying performance against Russia highlighted the need to have him in the mix. An anxiety has crept into Ireland’s play, especially in the opposition 22, and worryingly this was most evident against Russia, as evidenced by failed execution at ruck time, normally this team’s forte, and white line fever.
It hasn’t helped Ireland’s starter plays that the set-pieces, and especially the lineout, has malfunctioned at key times, notably in those momentum swinging moments on Ireland’s lineout and scrum against Japan.
Granted, as World Rugby has since conceded, the scrum penalty against Ireland on 35 minutes should instead have been against the Japanese loosehead Keita Inagaki for scrummaging at an outside-in angle - exactly the illegal tactic Joseph and his players accused Cian Healy of pre-match.
It is worth stressing that Ireland’s kicking game has evolved in the warm-up matches and here in Japan. Two of the first four tries against Russia emanated from a grubber by Johnny Sexton into space and a chip by Jack Carty into space. Even the fifth originated from Carty’s dinked little 22 metre restart to Bundee Aki.
Both tries against Japan were also created by Carty’s boot, the first with a crosskick for Garry Ringrose, the second when flicking back his own chip for Rob Kearney.
By far the most encouraging signals from Thursday in Kobe were that of Sexton running the show in familiar style for the first period, and then when Carty and those outside him seemed to play more instinctively for the last two tries.
Okay, it was against Russia, but it was great to see Carty appreciate space with his chip over the top for Keith Earls to send Andrew Conway to the try line. Perhaps with the pressure of securing that bonus point try removed, even better was the way Jordan Larmour also identified space in steaming onto Carty’s pass and breaking from deep after the quick 22 created an 80 metre try. There was a touch of yer man from Racing 92 in that.
Individually, Garry Ringrose and the outside backs have all actually looked in prime nick and form, and it would be profligate not to use them. Yet Ireland’s tactics against Japan drew some criticism for being too expansive in playing with so much width and for a higher rate of offloading, although these things are decidedly relative.
Against Japan, a tally of eight offloads, six of which went to hand, is hardly the stuff of the Harlem Globetrotters, and it was the width - whether through passes or cross kicks - which helped generate the two tries and the platform for other promising situations. For sure, like everyone else, Ireland don’t have the same talent pool with which the All Blacks have recast themselves at a relatively late point in time for this World Cup.
If anything Ireland’s offloading game, like their counter-attacking, hasn’t evolved enough in the last nine months especially, and as has been shown clearly, they’re not going to make a serious splash at this World Cup without one. It would be far better to see Ireland going down with all guns blazing than running into brick walls.
True, there seems to be an increasing over reliance on Sexton, as much as there ever was on Brian O’Driscoll, which is also compounded by the almost constant injury cloud over the Irish outhalf and the near non-availability of the unfortunate Joey Carbery.
He’s had one injury curtailed start of 50 minutes in the first warm-up game against Italy and the last quarter against Japan since the Scottish game in February. All things considered, Carty has actually filled the breach pretty well considering his lack of experience. Those first two tries against Japan and last two against Russia were cases of Carty being Carty.
So far in this tournament, Ireland haven’t shown many new plays, and there remains the hope that Joe Schmidt and his assistant coaches have kept something up their sleeves.
If not, then even Samoa will make things uncomfortable next Saturday, which really would not augur well for a potential quarter-final.
It’s not written in stone that Ireland would then play New Zealand. That hinges on Japan beating Scotland tomorrow week in the Pool A finale, and the momentum which the Brave Blossoms have gleaned, their favourable schedule as well as conditions, an unprecedented feel good factor toward them in Japan and the support of 70,000 supporters in Yokoahama against a team who do not play well away from home, they have to be favourites. They also looked primed to go 80 minutes.
That would then set up a repeat of Brighton four years ago, with Ireland facing the free-wheeling, free-scoring All Blacks.
Then again, Japan may not scale the same heights they did against Ireland, and were Scotland to win, then presuming Ireland beat Samoa they would top Pool A after all and face the Springboks.
It seemed instructive that even Schmidt was citing the “one-off” nature of quarter-finals in the aftermath of Ireland’s win over Russia. There remains that hope too, that if it comes to it, Ireland can produce a one-off performance against either of the southern hemisphere heavyweights.
It’s not been all doom and gloom. The performance of the pack especially against Scotland was top drawer. That was less than two weeks ago. But the hope is based more on past evidence than the kind of momentum they would have wished for at this point in the 2019 World Cup.