The Rugby Championship is making for somewhat uncomfortable viewing from this side of the global spectrum. Having provided all four semi-finalists at the 2015 World Cup the southern quartet have again been going full throttle at each other in a competitive environment over the last two Saturdays. Meanwhile, as was also the case at this juncture four years ago, the north remained under wraps in pre-season training camps.
Mindful of a potential World Cup quarter-final, last Saturday’s drawn encounter between New Zealand and South Africa on the second weekend of the Rugby Championship would have particularly interested the Irish squad.
Unlike epics of previous times, such as the corresponding encounter a year ago in Wellington when the Springboks downed the All Blacks by 36-34, the Southern Hemisphere super powers were not at optimum level.
Nor did Australia and Argentina subsequently put the earth on fire when the former won 16-10 in Brisbane, although it did mark an eye-catching return to the test arena for Christian Lealiifano after the one-time Ulster outhalf's well chronicled comeback from leukaemia. Michael Cheika has also welcomed James O'Connor back into the fold.
Akin to four years and eight years ago, the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights are taking a relatively experimental approach to the truncated version of their annual tournament.
Rassie Erasmus has wasted little time in reintroducing all the nine European-based players named in their squad, including Ulster's Marcell Coetzee, as well as the ex-Wasps full-back Willie le Roux, now based in Japan.
Erasmus also made a dozen changes to his starting line-up from the opening 35-17 win over Australia for last Saturday’s visit to Wellington. It was a measure of his intent though that 15 players excused duty from the opening win over Australia were sent to New Zealand a week in advance.
For his part, having given no less than five players their debuts in the All Blacks' opening 20-16 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires, Steve Hansen opted to play Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett together as dual playmakers.
The All Blacks’ plan had been to use Damian McKenzie at fullback and Barrett at outhalf until the brilliant McKenzie was ruled out of the World Cup due to an ACL injury. But Mo’unga’s form for the Crusaders prompted the New Zealand think tank to move Barrett to No 15 after 36 Tests in a row at 10.
Somehow you sense opposing teams are always happier when the world-class Barrett is moved to fullback. And not only did the world champions’ attack struggle in the face of the Boks’ rush defence, but reviving memories of the second Lions test at the same Westpac Stadium, Barrett’s goal-kicking (72 per cent at test level) saw a straightish penalty to ensure a two-score lead drift wide.
The Boks then earned a dramatic 16-all draw with the last play of the game through their new scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, the find of the tournament after scoring two tries on his debut in the bonus point win at home against Australia a week previously.
The Boks thus continued their upward curve. The draw left them atop the table by a point from New Zealand and thus in pole position to seal the title for the first time since 2009 next Saturday when they play Argentina in Salta.
Erasmus is clearly being given what he wants in the often overtly political world of South African rugby and the Boks, plainly more organised and sure of what they are doing, are also developing a brand of rugby in keeping with their identity.
Admittedly it’s a Rugby Championship of three rounds in which the four countries play each other once rather than a six-game, home and away format. The Wallabies won a similarly abbreviated tournament four years ago, their first title since 2011, which was the last Tri Nations before Argentina joined the competition. In 2015 Australia went on to reach the World Cup final at Twickenham.
Perhaps tellingly though, those pre-World Cup competitions of 2011 and 2015 remain the only two occasions in the last nine years when New Zealand did not lift the trophy. Each time they had bigger fish (or 'fush' as they'd say) to fry. It worked too, the All Blacks lifting the William Webb Ellis both times, and the strong suspicion lurks that they have been keeping plenty under wraps and wouldn't mind terribly if they didn't retain the Rugby Championship again.
Next Saturday week, New Zealand host Australia in a second Bledisloe Cup game in Eden Park, while South Africa entertain the Pumas in Loftus Versfeld. All four have also factored in one more warm-up game each and, coming toward the end of their season, should all be again well primed come Japan.
Meanwhile, the Northern Hemisphere swings into pre-World Cup warm-up action next weekend, when Ireland host Italy at the Aviva Stadium. England face Wales at Twickenham on Sunday, with four warm-up games apiece a general rule of thumb for the Six Nations squads.
On the back of Ireland’s stellar 2018, when they backed up their Grand Slam and series win in Australia by beating the All Blacks for a second time, their status as the world’s second ranked side, World Rugby Team of the Year and second favourites in the World Cup betting always seemed a little giddy.
In light of Ireland’s Six Nations comedown, England and South Africa have now supplanted Joe Schmidt’s team in the World Cup outright betting, with Slam-winning Wales fractionally behind. And were a World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa to come to pass, Ireland will most likely be underdogs to reach their first semi-final ever at the ninth attempt.
As much as helping to resolve some of the selection conundrums for the 31-man squad to travel to Japan, pundits and public alike will be looking for signs of confidence being restored in these warm-up games. And evidence that their attacking and defensive games have evolved.
"Two things happened in the Six Nations," says Shane Horgan. "One, we were psychologically damaged by the England game first out. We were surprised.
“We can’t just put that down to ‘England were up for it and physically they dominated us’. There was more to it than that, they moved on their game defensively and took a big jump forward from our system looking like the model for people to follow – England jumped it on.”
“Then, Wales jumped it on as well. Those two, their defensive system and what they are doing; that’s a concern for us. Psychologically the Six Nations damaged us.
“After the England performance, I’ve experienced that 1,000-yard stare when you’re not quite sure how the change has happened so quickly. They never quite recovered from it and, when we thought they were getting back on it, Wales happened which was anticlimactic and disappointing.”
“So, from that point bringing that form into the World Cup is super-concerning. What we have now is a period to address some of these things. What they will be doing from a psychological point is going back to not that far ago when they were unbelievably confident, unbelievably dominant and beat the All Blacks, looked like the best team in the world. They were all winning medals, they have consistently been successful over a number of years.”
“But there will be a hangover. Let’s see how that comes into the warm-up games.”
“The second part is how they move their game on. One is connected to the other as well because the defensive piece that I spoke about there, what Ireland do to their game. They have to adapt their game, their defensive system looked passive and, while it isn’t passive, it looked passive compared to what those other two teams were doing. And then how we play in the middle third, when we decide to kick the ball. Our variation in kick and in kickers.
“Finally and certainly as important is how our forwards and backs interplay, how they connect. When they do it, it breaks teams down and they find it really difficult. We have the players to do it, we have a brilliant handling front row, great secondrows and backrows that can handle that way as well.
“We have loads of players who connect, but another consequence of what that England game did to us psychologically, we just moved away from it in a big way.”
“If we can make those changes and address those issues over this time – and I’m sure they are being addressed – and then how we come through these warm-up games which are always tricky, then we get into a position where we can think we’re back somewhere where we used to be or we can be optimistic about what we’ll do in the World Cup.”
All that being said, only so much can be extracted from the Italian game next Saturday given the likely outcome.
“Ireland will beat Italy,” stresses Horgan. “I don’t know how much they’ll show either. Warm-up games are tricky because nobody wants to get injured. A good few guys will be thinking ‘I have to perform to get into the squad’. Some will be thinking I need to perform to get in the team and then some will be thinking ‘I am in the team, I just don’t want to mess this up’.”
“And then Joe will be thinking ‘right we have got Italy but we have three other games that we could lose’. World Cups are all about momentum, so you don’t want to bring that [a losing run] in.”
“It is also not unrealistic that he’d lose one of those three games, even two, but it wouldn’t be a disaster. So then it’s how you frame it amongst us [the media],” said Horgan, mindful of the balance between showing one’s hand, performing and winning.
Indeed, it's also worth recalling the relatively low-key warm-up programme of four years ago, when Ireland beat Wales away and Scotland at home before losing to Wales in the Aviva Stadium and England at Twickenham. It showed Joe Schmidt was prepared to keep his powder dry. Ireland duly won all four pool games.
Avoiding serious casualties is arguably more important than the results. The dislocated shoulder suffered by Brodie Retallick last Saturday which has left the outstanding lock in a race against time for Japan being a case in point.
But not wanting to get injured in a warm-up game carries no less, or more, risk of jeopardising a player’s World Cup than playing in a competitive tournament.
Nor does a good dress rehearsal automatically ensure a lengthy run come the World Cup, or vice versa.
Prior to the 2003 World Cup, Ireland recorded three handsome warm-up wins against Wales (35-12), Italy (61-6) and Scotland away (29-10), but at a huge cost. The broken leg suffered by Geordan Murphy, then at the peak of his considerable powers, cast a cloud over the latter win in Murrayfied, no less than David Wallace's knee injury against England at Croke Park in the final warm-up game in 2011.
In ’03, Ireland lost a winnable pool decider against Australia in Melbourne by 17-16, in turn condemning them to a 43-21 quarter-final defeat by France which was done and dusted by half-time before three late consolation tries.
Granted, in 2007, a 31-21 loss away to Scotland and scrappy, fortuitous 23-20 win over Italy in Belfast before a hastily arranged ‘friendly’ which became known as the Battle of Bayonne, proved to be an accurate portent of doom.
We just didn't get momentum, that's why these warm-up games are so important. . .
Ireland laboured against Namibia and almost lost to Georgia before France and Argentina put them to the sword.
Reflecting on that anticlimactic 2007 tournament this week, Ronan O’Gara said: “We just didn’t get momentum. That’s why these four warm-up games are so important at the moment even though, when they’re over, they’re not important one bit.”
Contradictory, but you could understand where O’Gara was coming from. Ireland lost all four warm-up games in 2011, and promptly won all four World Cup pool games for the first time ever, including a win over the Wallabies in Eden Park.
They’d happily bite your hand off for the same outcome again, albeit with a happier outcome in the quarter-finals.