Rugby World Cup: Ireland fail to find performance they were looking for
Bonus point safely secured but sloppy second half merely adds to growing misgivings
Ireland 35 Russia 0
By any normal yardstick securing a bonus point just past the hour, scoring five tries in total, keeping an opposing team scoreless for the first time in 11 years, and getting to within one more win against Samoa on Saturday week in a World Cup pool would represent a good night’s work.
But these are not normal times.
Ireland’s self-belief and momentum had suffered a severe jolt as a result of their seismic defeat by Japan. So they needed more than this 35-pt win against a Russian team which is currently the third lowest ranked (20th) in the tournament.
The Bears had qualified through the back door for their second World Cup and even their wonderful captain, Vasily Artemyev, admitted afterwards that they were the complete underdogs not only of Pool A, but of the 2019 World Cup.
To their credit, their spirit is utterly unquenchable, and they remained in defiantly spoiling mode for the full 80 minutes – and this was despite a very strong Irish start.
There was a confidence and a clear shape to everything Ireland did way back then. There were comparatively few handling errors in that opening half an hour or so but, of course, Johnny Sexton was pulling the strings.
Schmidt maintained there were more things that pleased him, beginning with the good start, which has actually become a constant positive in this team. That, he admitted, was again part of the plan in the knowledge that the ball would again become more sweat soaked as the match wore on.
John Ryan likened it to a bar of soap, and though rain had fallen since early afternoon on a cloudy day compared to last Monday’s scorcher, the humidity was still in the high 70s, compared to 84 per cent when Scotland played Samoa. Schmidt quipped that Ireland were seemingly set on matching the 35 handling errors of Tuesday’s game all by themselves, and ultimately they made 18.
For such a fired-up, animated, ultra-competitive individual, it’s amazing how calming a presence Johnny Sexton is, both seemingly on those around him and those watching from the stands or on TV.
He put his stamp on proceedings from the off, when calling for a reworking of that old Leinster move whereby Luke McGrath passed to Jordi Murphy and they feinted the famed wraparound, only for Murphy to pop the ball back inside for Rob Kearney to sprint through the vacated gap by the ruck.
He juggled but held on, and come hell or high water he wasn’t passing to Garry Ringrose and Andrew Conway on his outside, running on to score his third try in three games after a 26-Test tryless streak over four years. Kearney has a taste for meat pies again. Like busses alright.
The second try demonstrated how effective Ireland can be when transitioning from defence to attack. One knock-on by Russian lock Bogdan Fedotko, one carry by David Kilcoyne and one ruck later, Sexton grubbered into space on the run for Peter O’Mahony to score only his second Test try, and first since scoring against Samoa in 2013. Either the video analysts had done their work or Sexton had just quickly scanned the Russian defence. Or a bit of both.
But their clinical edge began to ebb before half-time, after Beirne misread the restart reception in the bright lights of Kobe Stadium, and all but deserted them in a very scratchy third quarter.
Too often Ireland’s intended carriers again received the ball standing still and then tried to accelerate into tacklers who saw them coming and lined them up. In that period, two of the 22 turnovers conceded overall were the result of Kilcoyne and Henderson taking the ball statically into contact, but there were countless others.
White line fever gripped them too, hence the failure to make more of 16 clean line breaks. Whatever about their self-confidence taking a hit, an anxiety has crept into them when they’re pressing hard for a try.
In all of this, nothing seemed the same without Sexton.
This game went a long way to underlining how integral he is to this team. It’s doubtful that any of the other 19 squads are so reliant on one player. Of course, he’s the reigning World Player of the Year for a reason.
Nor is this any slight on either Jack Carty or Joey Carbery, who must be utterly sick of his spate of injuries. Both are fine players, but the 27 minute wait for that bonus point try was inching toward squeaky bum territory.
Even the sizeable and high-spirited contingent from the Blarney Army in the 31,000 capacity became becalmed and a little twitchy.
When Carty is in his best Connacht mode, he has a wonderful array of attacking kicks, as he showed in creating the first two tries against Japan, and to his credit he stayed true to himself in paving the way for Andrew Conway’s bonus point try with a typically deft chip for Keith Earls to latch onto and skilfully send Conway haring away to the posts.
With one bound Ireland broke free? Perhaps not as free as a bird, but perhaps tellingly, with the bonus point secured, a weight was lifted off the team’s shoulders and the fifth try was the pick of the quintet.
Instigated by Carty, this was true heads-up, quick-thinking, play-what-you-see Connacht style, beginning with the outhalf’s chipped little 22 metre restart to Bundee Aki.
On a night when little seemed to go right for Aki, he never stopped busting a gut. He caught, carried hard and from the recycle Jordan Larmour did what Jordan Larmour does, racing onto Carty’s pass, beating German Davydov, releasing Earls and then supporting the winger on the inside to put Garry Ringrose over, although he could hardly bring himself to celebrate.
Maybe it was just tiredness.
Collectively though, Ireland didn’t find what they were looking for in Kobe.
Scoring sequence: 2 mins Kearney try, Sexton con; 14 mins O’Mahony try, Sexton con 14-0; 35 mins Ruddock try, Sexton con 21-0; (half-time 21-0); 62 mins Conway try, Carty con 28-0; 76 mins Ringrose try, Carty con 35-0.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy. Replacements: CJ Stander for Murphy (27 mins), Jack Carty for Sexton (half-time), Jordan Larmour for Kearney (50 mins), Sean Cronin for Scannell, Andrew Porter for Kilcoyne, Tadhg Furlong for Ryan (all 58 mins), Iain Henderson for Kleyn (60 mins). Not used: Conor Murray.
RUSSIA: Vasily Artemyev (capt); German Davydov, Igor Galinovski, Kirill Golosnitskiy, Denis Simplikevich; Ramil Gaisin, Dmitry Perov ; Andrei Polivalov, Evgeny Matveev, Kirill Gotovtsev, Andrey Garbuzov, Bogdan Fedotko , Anton Sychev, Tagir Gadzhiev, Victor Gresev.
Replacements: Vladimir Ostroushko for Golosnitskiy (14 mins), Stanislav Selskii for Matveev, Valery Morozov for Polivalov (both half-time), Andrey Ostrikov for Garbuzov (50 mins), Evgeny Elgin for Fedotko (64 mins), Vladimir Podrezov for Gotovtsev for (68 mins), Roman Khodin for Sychev (69 mins), Sergey Ianiushkin for Simplikevich (71 mins). Sinbinned: Fedotko (33-43 mins), Ostrikov (51-61 mins).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).