Gordon D’Arcy: Glass quarter full or three quarters empty? Either way, I’m worried

We could all do with the sight of Ringrose and Sexton tearing it up at Twickenham

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose in action against Italy in the Guinness Summer Series at the  Aviva Stadium on Saturday August 10th. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose in action against Italy in the Guinness Summer Series at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday August 10th. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Let’s begin with Joey Carbery. Not his injury. Nothing can be done about that. Unfortunate, potentially derailing in its timing; he won’t be the last man to fall. Carbery either returns from ankle surgery or he doesn’t.

I’m more concerned about his repeated decisions to cross-kick from Ireland’s 22 against Italy on August 10th. The crowd enjoyed the sight of Andrew Conway plucking ball from the sky, but what was the point? It looked unnecessarily risky. If the punt got picked off, Ireland were back-pedalling 15, 10 metres from their own try line.

Conway won back possession to put Ireland on the front foot. Great. Next I expected a rapid interchange in midfield to exploit the space on the far side of the pitch. Italy were condensed. Having dragged them one way, Ireland needed to tear them apart on the left wing. That would have lifted my spirits, shown a new departure from the insipid attacking approach we witnessed for most of the Six Nations.

Instead, all we learned from the first warm-up match was how instrumental Carbery is to Ireland in broken play.

I’m worried. I think we all are. Twickenham on Saturday matters more than it should. All the southern hemisphere sides are up and running. Japan have become a serious opponent. Wales and England were equally impressive in patches over the past two weekends. Even the French looked dangerous again.

Irish rugby supporters haven’t seen anything to fill them with confidence for a very long time.

We need a sign.

Too many obstacles

South Africa won the Rugby Championship under the guidance of former Munster duo Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber. We’ll get to the encyclopedic knowledge they have compiled on Irish rugby closer to the World Cup quarter-final. But I’m not thinking about that game anymore. Right now, the path to the knockout stages is blocked by far too many obstacles.

Self-made obstacles.

This Saturday, they need to find new or old ways through or around the England defence

Most of the time I have a glass-half-full mentality but, currently, the Irish glass is a quarter full. Or is that three quarters empty?

Either way, this Saturday, they need to find new or old ways through or around the England defence.

The Springboks’ phenomenal recovery this past year is worth contrasting with Ireland’s dramatic dip since beating the All Blacks in November 2018. When Ireland carry ball – at almost any stage this year – near the opposition line it’s static and easy to defend. Now, watch the two-step power runs by Malcolm Marx or Pieter-Steph du Toit. The difference is stark. Handré Pollard’s try in Argentina is the clearest example. It helps that Duane Vermeulen is the previous carrier and du Toit runs a hard decoy line, but that’s the point: everyone is in forward motion so the Pumas’ defence cannot set.

South Africa v Argentina TRC 2019 highlights

Ireland carriers are only moving after getting the ball while South Africans are moving before their scrumhalf passes. This is fixable. Conor Murray, primarily using Jack Conan and James Ryan, can instantly solve this problem. In 2018 this issue never reared its head as Murray was working off quick rucks. In 2019 Ireland appear to be hitting (slower) rucks for the sake of hitting rucks. That’s my major concern.

Ideally, two months from now, this column gets flung back in my face as the island gears up for a World Cup semi having just floored one of rugby’s heavyweights. Everything will seem possible as I happily devour humble pie. But, right now, on August 21st, 2019, our best starting XV doesn’t feel as good as the side Paul O’Connell led into battle against France four years ago when Seán O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip were in their prime.

Superior depth

Without a doubt the 2019 squad has superior depth in every position. That’s as great a Joe Schmidt achievement as the European titles won with Leinster and the 2018 Grand Slam. Schmidt has meticulously compiled a panel to cover almost every angle that can be damaged by injury (beating the All Blacks without Conor Murray proves as much).

But squads don’t win World Cups. The most cohesive and luckiest team will lift the William Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd. That team will have a superstar in their ranks. Think Bryan Habana or Dan Carter.

Don’t worry, we are nowhere near 2007 territory. Nothing will ever sit beside those unending Bordeaux days, but ignoring that time only invites history to repeat itself. Actually, we weren’t in Bordeaux. That was the problem. You’ve probably heard this whine before: the 15-minute walk from our industrial estate to find a cafe while we heard stories of other teams strolling out from their city hotels.The memory refuses to fade. Hotel and food problems were not what did us in.

Nope. The end came before the beginning. We ran riot in Rome, with Denis Hickie finishing his Six Nations innings the same way he started by claiming two of our eight tries. Eight tries. We liked how that felt. So did our head coach Eddie O’Sullivan. We were a seriously good rugby team, capable of beating anyone on our day. We all started to think about winning the World Cup. Shane Horgan famously said it out loud.

This was before Leinster had conquered Europe, so the Munster blueprint was proven, and, with Ireland’s pack largely made up of Munster men, we went about beating most nations via old-school, simple rugby. Irish rugby.

Eddie decided we needed to bring our offensive play to another level. The theory remains solid. Putting it into practice, not so much. We changed up that summer to add a new dimension to our attack. Everyone bought into the masterplan. It was primarily based on ball playing forwards in midfield, creating space for myself, Brian, Den and Shane out the back.

We were flying during July rehearsals, believing we could beat teams any which way. On our day. That day never came. Everything went to shit against Italy in Belfast this week 12 years ago. Ronan O’Gara’s illegitimate try robbed them of victory and, while it looked like we escaped with a cheeky win, inside the changing room the collective mood plunged to unknown lows.

The ball hit the deck an embarrassing amount of times as internal finger-pointing began. We were all at it. Now, the group remained tight-knit but a lack of confidence in the system mired the psyche.

Bath water

What did we do? Something Schmidt’s Ireland would never contemplate: the baby – our new attacking strategy – was flung out with the bath water. We went back to what we knew best. Worse still, we began to batter each other in training. Eddie made a decision to stick with his tried and trusted. The Georgia game is perilously close to my career low in the green jersey. And we won. Maybe if we had lost . . . I can’t even go there. Eddie sacrificed Stringer and Hickie – untouchables in the team for seven years – but it could have been 10 other players (me included).

Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy dejected as France’s Julien Bonnaire congratulates try-scorer Vincent Clerc during their World Cup group match in September 2007. Photograph: Billy Stickland
Ireland’s Gordon D’Arcy dejected as France’s Julien Bonnaire congratulates try-scorer Vincent Clerc during their World Cup group match in September 2007. Photograph: Billy Stickland
England in August 2019 are genuine contenders. We experienced their power surge last February

Not that it would have made any difference. The die was cast. God, the wound still festers.

Surviving England players from the 2015 World Cup will relate. The majority of us went down to New Zealand four years later and atoned – to a point – by powering into the quarter-finals. That’s enough! I’m not picking the 2011 scab today.

England in August 2019 are genuine contenders. We experienced their power surge last February. They are right up there with the ’Boks and All Blacks. Wales are in decent shape too, while Michael Cheika has turned Australia into a gang well capable of causing a tremor or two in Japan. In ball players like James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, they boast an increasingly rare commodity in modern rugby.

Right now, I feel Ireland are sitting below this list of contenders. Just above the unpredictable French and Pumas. We haven’t fired a shot. Twickenham on Saturday matters more than it should. We know how Ireland will play under Schmidt. My major concern is so does every defensive coach heading to the land of the rising sun.

I’m apprehensive without being defeatist. We urgently need to see more creativity in midfield

It would be big mistake for Ireland to keep their powder dry until the tournament starts. I’m concerned about the tried and trusted plan not working out, with men like Tadhg Beirne, Conway, Chris Farrell unable to bring a different dimension as they might not make the plane. Ireland appears to be leaning towards the best cover rather than the best individuals.

Overall fear

That’s enough negativity. I am fully aware that a column like this, while it probably won’t be read by the players, will be relayed to them, and can contribute to the overall fear. Schmidt said it after defeat to England: the players are humans. Individual anxiety leading up to international games is severe. Nothing in my life since comes close to the strain. Players are not robots. They know better than everyone else what happened during the Six Nations. Now’s the time to show glaring problems from February and March have been solved.

I’m apprehensive without being defeatist. We urgently need to see more creativity in midfield. If we go into this tournament relying on Johnny (or Joey) as the only creator, then Scotland and Japan will be licking their lips. Sure, the team is good enough to win Pool A, with a glut of tries from Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls probably securing top spot before the final game against Samoa. That allows 15 days’ preparation before South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

But that’s where it ends unless Ireland’s attack improves.

In Garry Ringrose we all must trust. With Rob Kearney in pole position to start at fullback and Robbie Henshaw at 12 it becomes vital that Ringrose demands possession when space opens up. I’m not comparing him to Brian O’Driscoll – okay, I am a little – but an overwhelming majority of my 83 test matches happened in between Brian and Ronan.

Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll at Ireland Rugby squad training in New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll at Ireland Rugby squad training in New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Intuition is innate to a rare breed of athlete, but it only fully comes from time spent in the arena

Greatness demands a large dollop of ruthlessness. Rog, more often than not, would play the game however he saw fit. Why wouldn’t he? As his career matured he knew his decision-making on the fly should result in victory. He kept the big lads moving in one direction. If opportunity arose to fling a killer pass he’d pull the trigger. But the Ireland No 10 always fired ball into midfield if a roar came from No 13.

Savage work ethic

I’d see Brian take up positions alien to everyone but him. You’d need the video review to understand what he was doing three, four phases before he attacked. The rugby player only gets to the highest level with a savage work ethic. O’Driscoll would’ve had to slightly alter that mindset, force himself to avoid rucks, to ensure he was available when the game-changing moment came along.

Intuition is innate to a rare breed of athlete, but it only fully comes from time spent in the arena. Ireland need Ringrose to start seeing the entire map. He has the intellect. He knows by now that the outside centre can carve up defences and create scores like no other position on the field. We need to see Ringrose roaring at Sexton. And we need Johnny to instantly obey. Waiting for Carbery to recover and finding a place for him in the XV or off the bench might no longer be Ireland’s ace in the hole.

Everyone could do with the sight of Ringrose and Sexton tearing it up at Twickenham. Calm the nerves a little. England are rolling into this tournament with a seriously powerful squad. Their best XV is as good as any other and their confidence is beginning to soar. Going full throttle this weekend comes with a guaranteed cost but I’m worried; we need to see Ireland’s best team and we need them to go to another level sooner because I fear there will be no time later.

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