Ireland may need to follow England’s example for Rugby World Cup
Gerry Thornley: Irish team can rebuild momentum by matching 2003 formula
Ireland’s muted celebrations after Conor Murray secured a bonus point against Italy. The body language of the Irish team in Rome was telling. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
England captain Martin Johnson celebrates his team’s 2003 Rugby World Cup win in Australia. File photograph: ©INPHO/Getty Images
England remain the only northern hemisphere country to have won the Rugby World Cup, and their 2003 success is therefore seen as something of a template for European teams. They went into that tournament on the back of nine wins out of 10, having pretty much swept all before them.
After years of near misses, they completed a Grand Slam at the beginning of the year with their 42-6 win over Dublin in Lansdowne Road, before beating the All Blacks in Wellington and Australia in Melbourne. Clive Woodward was criticised in many quarters for bringing a full-strength squad on that two-match Australasian tour, but was vindicated by his decision. Coupled with the Grand Slam, the wins gave their golden generation huge belief going to the World Cup in Australia.
Their only defeat before that tournament was a 17-16 warm-up loss in Marseille, and they avenged that a week later in Twickenham when thrashing France 45-14. Coupled with their Six Nations win over France at the same venue, this assuredly had a bearing on the two sides’ mentalities when they subsequently met in the World Cup semi-final on a sodden night in Sydney.
Come the World Cup final, the only changes from England’s starting XV against Ireland in Dublin the preceding March were the two props, as 13 of the side kicked off the decider against Australia.
It also assuredly helped England’s mindset that their XV for the final included 14 of the team that had started the win over the Wallabies in Melbourne the previous June. The exception, Matt Dawson, had come on as a replacement in Melbourne too.
England actually struggled for form at one stage in the World Cup, notably in their pool game against Samoa, and then when given an almighty fright by Wales in the quarter-finals. But the memory of their achievements that year assuredly stood to them when their confidence wavered in Australia.
On the eve of this year’s Six Nations, Lawrence Dallaglio admitted as much when attending an event with Brian O’Driscoll to promote sensible drinking during this year’s tournament. Looking ahead to Ireland’s nine games between then and the World Cup, he ventured: “You wouldn’t want to be losing more than one of those, that’s for sure, if you really think you’re good enough to win the World Cup.”
The example of England in 2003 seems particularly pertinent for Ireland, given they have to break through that glass ceiling beyond the World Cup quarter-finals.
Losing one or both of their final two competitive games before the tournament would thus not be fatal, but would not be ideal either. Winning both would go a long way toward restoring the confidence that has evidently been damaged by that opening day Six Nations defeat to England, all the more so if it came with two big performances.
For a good side, this is eminently achievable. Ireland need only look at the examples of their next two opponents, who both produced, by some distance, their best performances of this year’s Six Nations in round three.
The Six Nations, like the World Cup, is rarely linear. Even in winning the Grand Slam last year, Ireland produced their extraordinary escape act in Paris and lived on the edge at home to Wales and Scotland before producing their most complete performance in Twickenham.
Back in 2011, Ireland struggled for form two seasons on from winning the Grand Slam, barely squeezing past Italy in Rome 13-11 courtesy of a last-gasp Ronan O’Gara drop goal, and Scotland in Murrayfield (21-18), while losing at home to France and away to Wales. Come the final game in Dublin, when England rolled into town looking for the Grand Slam, Ireland beat them 24-6.
It is more than conceivable that, similarly, Ireland are not that far away.
Many theories are being expounded out there as to some possible underlying reasons for Ireland losing their form, such as the IRFU announcing that Joe Schmidt would be moving on after the World Cup. Johnny Sexton has given this one short shrift, and he’s surely right.
It’s hard to imagine Schmidt, of all people, ever being a “lame duck” head coach, or that his impending departure has somehow taken the edge off Ireland’s performances, not least with his successor, Andy Farrell, on the scene.
Nor has Warren Gatland’s announcement that he is moving on after his 12th Six Nations and third World Cup with Wales appeared to have taken the edge off them, with that win over England extending their winning sequence to a record 12 matches.
There’s also a theory about that the bad-tempered nature of the Munster-Leinster derby, when the latter also travelled with an unusually strong side for that fixture, has reopened some old wounds between the squad’s two bulk suppliers. Could they really need another “Rob Kearney moment”, as was the case with the 2009 squad’s clear-the-air get-together the previous Christmas? Surely that one’s been buried, given they have had so many good days together?
More likely, as is usually the case in these scenarios, there are a myriad of small factors rather than one major one. The loss of confidence has compounded the relative rustiness of some key men. In desperately seeking to rediscover their best form, the players have fallen into a trying-too-hard syndrome, and so errors have been compounded by more of the same.
Dallaglio also warned that, as “one of the best sides in the world”, Ireland would discover that “everyone plays their best game against you. Everyone is 10-15 per cent better than they would be in any other game because they’re terrified of losing.” And in the case of England especially, they just wanted to take Ireland down due to the memory of Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day last year.
This Irish squad, and especially its sizeable Leinster contingent, scaled the heights last year like never before. They would only be human if their levels of desire weren’t quite the same for this year’s Six Nations, all the more so with the bigger prize on offer later this year.
It seems odd to say this about a team that has just accrued nine points from back-to-back away games. But to prevent the mutterings about this squad reaching a peak last year becoming a crescendo, and even seeping damagingly into their own subconsciousness, Ireland need a restorative performance and a win or two. Starting next Sunday.