The next two months for Ireland will be gruelling – and unforgettable

It looks daunting for the World Cup, but don’t underestimate Joe Schmidt

 Joe Schmidt: the final two months of his term in charge of Ireland are set to be unforgettable no matter what way things pan out. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Joe Schmidt: the final two months of his term in charge of Ireland are set to be unforgettable no matter what way things pan out. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It has always been an article of faith that whenever New Zealand are playing rugby, then the country comes to a standstill, with everyone from the beach bars along Mission Bay to farmers living out in the wops glued to the box to see who the All Blacks wallop next. There may well be several thousands – well, hundreds – of New Zealanders who live perfectly full and happy lives without ever watching their national rugby team marauding their way through the best efforts of other countries. But, in the main, the game’s their religion.

No surprise, then, that the Kiwis are getting seriously riled at the absence of free-to-air coverage of their games for the World Cup, with some 40,000 set to miss the live broadcast of games because of wonky internet coverage. Still, the fact that the television signal is the main issue emanating from All Blacks land is a sign of just how right things are in their world just now.

Even the bare 36-0 score line they posted against Australia in the Bledisloe Cup served as a stern warning that Steve Hansen’s team will be showing up in Japan to win it all. Inevitably, that game makes Irish minds turn to the magical and increasingly distant night last November when the black shirts’ full century of omnipotence over Ireland in Dublin was ended.

Weird, so, to consider that should Ireland somehow come through Saturday afternoon’s daunting and possibly shattering experience in Twickenham, they could jump – past Wales – to secure the number one spot of the world rugby rankings.

It doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t feel as if Ireland is on top of any world just now. Underlying the base deterioration of Ireland’s form and fortune since that evening when Joe Schmidt seemed to orchestrate even the weather (still, starry, perfect) runs a basic question: What has happened?

Go back to that night. Even through the general euphoria in the stadium and the shot of pride that flowed through the country, if only for the weekend, there was the unmistakable sense that Ireland had wandered into a sweet-smelling and treacherous place. There was no escaping the Irish delight at beating the All Blacks for the first time ever on Irish soil. The emotion was genuine and perhaps a bit naive. But so what? When they appeared in the mixed zone afterwards, the All Blacks players were a little bit too complimentary towards the Irish, and Steve Hansen gently upped the flame on the gas cooker by repeatedly saying that Ireland must be the best team in the world because that’s what the result of the game suggested.

Heaping scorn

In the days afterwards, those inclined to rain down on displays of happiness from a great height did just that, heaping scorn on the excited commentaries after the win and on the general glow of happiness. The grievance was based on the usual accusation that perspective had been lost; that, as usual, Ireland had got carried away in the moment and that this celebrating was daft and foolish.

But that complaint was also irrelevant, as if a weekend of admiring media coverage and anticipation would change anything within the mindset of the Irish rugby squad. What it amounted to was a sense that it was somehow dangerous to believe – and to state the belief – that an Irish rugby team had played itself into a position where it might just be good enough to challenge for the biggest prize in the game.

There was something grim about the way Wales pulverised Ireland in claiming their Grand Slam in March

A week after that win, it was confirmed that Schmidt would step down at the end of the World Cup. It ended months of intense speculation but also, inevitably, brought the sense of an era reaching its last lap.

The World Cup was still 11 months away at that stage. The Irish players were facing into a long club winter and a Six Nations championships in which the other nations would be gunning for them. So it proved. There was something grim about the way Wales pulverised Ireland in claiming their Grand Slam in March, and that ominous feeling has stayed with Ireland in the build-up to Japan. The recent uncertainty over Joey Carbery and Johnny Sexton’s unavailability has meant that Schmidt and Ireland have had to adapt on the hoof for what promise to be physically gruelling warm-up encounters with England and two games against high-flying Wales over the next fortnight. The worst-case scenario is that Ireland emerge from that series with three defeats and an injury list more extensive than currently stands.

New Zealand’s worries are lighter. The praise that the commentators repeatedly used in that Australia game revolved around New Zealand’s running speed. “Too quick”; “too much gas”; “speed to burn”: the All Blacks used an attack predicated on pre-empting the rush defence, getting the ball to where cover is thinnest and then just taking off. All of a sudden, playing Beauden Barrett at full back looked like a good fit, and New Zealand prepare for their final warm-up game against Tonga rich in options. It was as if they were content to see what all the rumpus was about that night in Dublin; to experience the Schmidt machine operating at full tilt and to then go away and formulate a plan to counteract that in case they’d have to confront it again in the real thing – in Japan.

Vision for rugby

What it all means is that the final two months of Schmidt’s term in charge of Ireland are set to be unforgettable no matter what way things pan out. If his vision for rugby was never the most exciting to watch, the results and consistency of performance he achieved have been a marvel. Everything about his measured approach and the attention to detail which both shocked and reinvigorated seasoned professionals, and the meticulous development of back-up players, promised that the 2019 World Cup could be better than anything before.

But, for all of that, you can’t plan for the bad luck. And having both first and second-choice number 10s absent going into the Eddie Jones warzone has to count as that. It could be, too, that the other elite teams have figured out a way through Schmidt’s brand of error-free defensive solidity, and it could also be true that the bigger rugby countries simply have the numbers to reinvent themselves more quickly and nimbly than any Irish rugby team can. The evidence of that could be presented painfully at Twickenham on Saturday.

Don’t forget Schmidt’s talent for cold deliverance when it matters. Don’t bank on that having disappeared when it is most needed

But whatever way it all pans out over the next two months cannot change the authenticity of what Ireland did against New Zealand last November. They are in a grim spot just now, the engine spluttering and wheezing as they move towards a World Cup in which they are charted to play against either the outright or second favourites just to make it past the quarter-finals. Expectations are being reappraised and downsized on a daily basis.

Only, just don’t forget Schmidt’s talent for cold deliverance when it matters. Don’t bank on that having disappeared when it is most needed. Nobody can say the last year’s All Blacks hype hasn’t been deflated. Meanwhile, Steve Hansen has turned his attention to Wales. “They’re the number one team in the world taking it into the World Cup,” he said admiringly. “Now they’ve to deal with the expectations.”

It has a familiar ring.

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