Niall Scannell dismisses criticism of sub-par Irish performance
Ireland accentuate the positive after 35-0 victory over Russia on a rainy night in Kobe
Ireland’s Andrew Conway looks to break through Vladimir Podrezov of Russia during their Rugby World Cup 2019 Group A game at Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
At least Ireland are showing a united front. The party line is being trotted out by both players and coaches. Almost to a man, the plan is to pay respect to the opposition, credit the positive elements of their own performances and wait for the head coach to spin the narrative come team announcement day.
This week it was the officials in the Japan game who came in for pointed criticism. Now, after so obviously struggling to penetrate Russia’s defence as soon as Johnny Sexton departed, before breaking loose down the home straight, Joe Schmidt maintained this über-positive approach.
Oddly, when asked about the mounting casualty list, with emphasis on Joey Carbery’s late withdrawal with a recurrence of his August ankle injury, the outgoing Ireland coach cracked a joke about Conor Murray being so keen to play that at one stage he was going to go on at lock.
Murray, of course, did not feature in this 35-0 victory over the world’s 20th-ranked nation. Ireland have tumbled to fourth.
Before the mixed zone commenced, the incoming players gathered for a quick pow-wow with their media handler. There followed an unrelenting wave of positivity, best exemplified by outgoing hooker Niall Scannell.
“In the end we are happy with the scoreline,” was Scannell’s opening gambit.
Besides the conditions, why was the Irish performance so sub-par in the third quarter?
“I didn’t really think it was sub-par, to be honest. We had some good interplay. I thought our set piece functioned well. I thought the subs had a good impact. We are pretty positive about how it went.”
Scannell was asked how much he noticed Sexton wasn’t on the pitch after half-time.
“Well, obviously I noticed he wasn’t on the pitch, he was substituted,” laughed Scannell before delivering what can only be described as a delightful ode to Jack Carty.
The super-positive approached is noted. World Cup mixed zones are only comparable to cattle marts. Nobody is happy to be dropped into such a situation, but the smell of manure only makes it more excruciating.
In fairness to the Munster hooker, he manfully stood his ground when it was put as plainly as possible: was that third-quarter performance acceptable to the Ireland pack?
“Yeah, well, I thought we had one scrum definitely where we got caught on the outside a bit and we gave away a penalty, but I thought, other than that, set piece-wise, we functioned and we didn’t ease off on the physicality. They did exactly what they thought they would do and they didn’t go away, and we knew they wouldn’t.
These guys are proper rugby players. This is international rugby. Teams are not just going to go away
“So from our point of view we had to power through and in the last 20 minutes we kicked on a bit, which is what we expect.”
Fair enough. Russia were putting everything on the line but do the Ireland players – as one of the best teams in the world – not expect to be putting up scores, like the example shown by New Zealand against Canada (63-0) and South Africa against Namibia (57-3)?
“That’s just not necessarily how it happens all the time. They were hugely physical and with the conditions it wasn’t as easy to put interplay together to get the width on our game that we would have liked. So we had to front up physically. There is no doubt that led to a couple of errors. They really stuck at our breakdown. They have a few serious players, particularly the seven, Gadzhiev, got over our ball a lot. That did slow us.
‘Proper rugby players’
“These guys are proper rugby players. This is international rugby. Teams are not just going to go away.
“We were accused last week of underestimating Japan,” Scannell continued, despite no mention of Shizuoka. “That wasn’t the case either. I really don’t see that argument from the other side.”
Clearly, the Irish camp were told what Jamie Joseph said about them only beginning preparations for the Japan game seven days out – flinging Ireland’s “one game at a time” cliche back in their faces – while the victors had spent three years aiming at causing one of the great World Cup upsets.
“That’s what people were accusing us of doing against Japan,” said Scannell, while stating how dangerous a proposition Samoa will be. “We don’t think that in the camp. When you look at what Japan did, it was very impressive. In defence they came and hit us in twos. There is absolutely no doubt that’s what Russia saw and they came off the line, tried to put us under pressure, and mix that with the conditions, they stuck in there and made it hard for us to play.
“That’s not an excuse from us. That’s just a reality.”
Reality feels like it has been suspended.