IRFU review admits Ireland caught cold by Japan at World Cup
‘We underestimated the intensity of what Japan were able to play at, that genuinely surprised us’
The Japan team celebrate victory over Ireland at the World Cup. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
The IRFU’s review into the 2019 World Cup has accepted that there were mistakes in the build-up to the tournament and during it, most notably in not developing Ireland’s game, in underestimating Japan and in not giving the staff and players sufficient help in dealing with the anxiety that crept into the squad from the beginning of the Six Nations onwards.
Some of these findings, and more, were divulged at a briefing with the media today by the union’s performance director David Nucifora, who earlier today presented the review to the IRFU’s Management Committee and Professional Game Board.
The review followed the process adopted at the same juncture in 2015, with a survey of players and staff before the World Cup, conducted by the same outside source, supplemented by interviews with key personnel after the tournament, which were conducted by Nucifora himself.
The report contains over 50 recommendations, some “operational and boring but useful for us for the next Rugby World Cup, ” said Nucifora, but the first one in relation to Ireland’s quarter-final exit was whether the team’s game had developed sufficiently.
“I know there’s been criticism over a period of what we should do, offload or counter-attack more,” acknowledged Nucifora, who never mentioned Joe Schmidt, or any of his assistants by name, although it’s clear the buck stops with the now departed head coach.
“It’s not as if coaching staff don’t consider that, they consider everything. A coach is like a risk assessor in insurance,” he added, “who assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his own team and opposition.
“I believe leading into the World Cup, post-Six Nations, those things were all assessed and the strength of the team was the strength and clarity of how they play. That doesn’t come overnight, it comes from being drilled intensely over a long period of time. Change would have been difficult.”
Nucifora stressed that coaches have a limited time frame to develop games, confined mostly to the eight to ten weeks before the World Cup given the match intensity of the Six Nations. But, crucially, having said all that, Nucifora concluded: “Should we have developed our game further? Potentially yes, with the benefit of hindsight.”
Maintaining that “our coaches” have been good at making decisions over a long period of time, that change would have crested risk, and citing the examples of the All Blacks, England and the relatively consistent game employed by South Africa, Nucifora concluded: “There’s an argument for both sides around style, but should we have armed our players with more tools? I think, with benefit of hindsight, we should have. It’s not absolutely certain that we’d definitely have gotten a better result. It could have been worse, and all turned to custard.”
The next most notable finding of the report, according to Nucifora, were issues around anxiety/stress in Ireland’s performance, arising from the expectation generated by the achievements of 2018. These were compounded by a deflating Six Nations and the defeat by an underestimated Japan and an overt focus on the opening pool game against Scotland.
“This was very relevant for us before and during the tournament, I think that at the end of 2018 we were now the front-runners. And I’m still getting my head around this but to deal with that mentality and how you handle pressure and expectation of being the best, as we came into Six Nations and we genuinely did; the bell curve started to drop with performances.
“Straight away, there was a level of anxiety. Some of it was stress, it can manifest itself in staff and players. Going into the world’s biggest competition, we probably underestimated the level of support we needed to give staff around that area, helping them manage the expectation that was on them which came from the success they’d had.
“Players and staff, they’re all human and have other lives and stresses. To be able to manage those things, the stress and expectation of performance is a big area for us to look at and service our staff. Our performance psychology needs to be improved, as well as health and well-being. We need to continually upgrade, upskill how we utilise those disciplines because if we continue to do well, manage to get on top, near the top we need to be able to manage it better.”
Nucifora admitted the primary focus in the build-up to the tournament was on the Scottish game, as it was perceived as “our biggest pool game”.
“Everything we worked towards was to have success (in that game). We achieved that, but we’ve asked the question is did we get it wrong in not coupling it up? With a six day turnaround, how would people respond when climbing the mountain and get the same level of focus, enthusiasm to perform against the home side who had nothing to lose?
“We underestimated the intensity of what Japan were able to play at, that genuinely surprised us,” said Nucifora, somewhat damningly. “Coupled with coming off Scotland, how we dealt with it, we got a few things wrong. If we had our time again, our focus would have been split more evenly about how we go about it.”
Not that Ireland would have changed their game strategy, he added, but in terms of their preparation and mindset, “there were learnings for us.”
“Dropping that Japanese game sets a tone, a mood. Stress, anxiety, wanting to perform, that damaged us and there was more pressure on us to perform to the level we wanted to perform at.”