Irish problems run deeper than this Kobe sweat box

Irish problems run deeper than this Kobe sweat box
Peter O'Mahony of Ireland on his way to scoring his side's second try during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Russia at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

As an organising body, World Rugby haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in this tournament to date.

While I get the fact that referees have to be responsible for their performances, and sadly the levels of consistency across the board in games has been severely lacking, the regularity with which the governing body has been throwing the officials under the bus with its public utterances is quite unusual to say the least.

In addition, the decision taken by World Rugby in advance of the tournament to have the roof closed for all games staged at the Kobe Misaki Stadium is strange. I get the concept that with teams fighting for every potential bonus point on offer and the possibility that points differential could be a key factor in deciding who advances to the knockout phase, consistency in the conditions at a stadium of this nature is necessary.

What I don’t understand is the decision taken to close the roof for all games as opposed to having it open for all of them. You didn’t have to be a meteorologist to work out in advance that playing conditions at this time of year in Japan were going to be extremely challenging for teams in the first place without making them even more difficult by closing the roof.

Leaving it open might expose teams to playing in some of the heavy, if sporadic, rain showers we have witnessed at some of the games — indeed it was lashing rain for periods in the hours before yesterday’s contest against Russia — but, even then, the playing surface and ball-handling conditions couldn’t be more difficult to what the players have been experiencing in this arena.

If achieving consistency across a pool was the basis of this decision, then all five teams should have to play a game in the stadium. Ironically Japan are the only team in Pool A not to have a fixture in Kobe, with Scotland, Samoa, Ireland and Russia all being exposed to playing in desert-like conditions.

Strange that...

England and USA were the only two sides in Pool C, potentially the tightest of all the pools, that had to play here. Where is the consistency in that? The handling errors and turnover statistics are far higher playing here than at any other stadium in the tournament, which has impacted on the quality of those games.

It was no different in this one as Ireland struggled to deal with a game but very limited Russian side who made Ireland fight far harder for the inevitable bonus-point win that they should have. Once again handling errors abounded as Ireland failed to achieve any semblance of continuity.

You really had to be in the sweat box in what has been renamed the Kobe Oven by fans to appreciate just how stifling it is. At least Ireland were fully aware of the issues they were likely to face in advance of this outing against Russia and knew what to expect.

In any event, after what happened against Japan last Saturday, the time for excuses was over with Andy Farrell insisting in advance of the game against Russia that Ireland carry a “no-excuse culture” into this one.

Ireland ticked the necessary box in obtaining that bonus-point win which means a single-point victory over Samoa now guarantees a place in the knock-out phase. On the basis of this disappointing performance, however, yet another World Cup quarter-final exit beckons unless something dramatic happens over the next two weeks.

An opening quarter that delivered 14 points in as many minutes laid the foundation for what should have been a very comfortable victory over what is, by and large, an amateur side playing against seasoned professionals.

Bear in mind also that this was a Russian side that made nine changes from their first-choice team that started against Japan and Samoa. Yet Ireland struggled to get the job done against a side reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes of action due to two separate yellow card infringements.

Ireland did well initially, through decent execution and by playing smart if not spectacular rugby, to race into that 14-0 lead with Johnny Sexton running the show as only he can. The fact he failed to appear after the break is a major concern despite utterances to the contrary from the management.

While he kicked all three conversions of Ireland’s first-half tries, alleviating any concern hanging over his groin injury, the fact that he was replaced by Jack Carty from the outset of the second half was a surprise, especially as he was captaining the side for the first time in his illustrious career.

With Sexton now watching from the sideline, Ireland’s performance levels dropped to an alarming degree after the break. Quite why Ireland persisted in playing a sterile, one out running game that was handled with ease by the Russian defence was mind-boggling.

Russia mightn’t be rugby smart but they are very strong in the upper body and will take you on in an arm wrestle all day. They were also very smart in the way they resourced the ruck, committing as few bodies as possible which enabled them retain a strong red defensive line across the field.

It was only when Carty identified the vast space in behind the Russian midfield in the final quarter that Ireland made any gains. A well-finished try from Andrew Conway which finally delivered the four-try bonus on 61 minutes and a similar effort from Garry Ringrose with just four minutes left all emanated from clever kicks. The mystery is why it took Ireland so long to work that out.

You have to think if New Zealand or South Africa were playing against this Russian team, they would have won at a canter. Worryingly, the buzz and energy levels appear to be missing from the Irish set-up at the moment and while the conditions are definitely a contributory factor, the malaise runs far deeper than that.

Quite what has happened since that clinical performance against Scotland only 11 days ago is a mystery. The fact that Joey Carbery was withdrawn from bench duty a few hours before kick-off due to another problem with his ankle is an additional worry while a rib injury to Jordi Murphy, who only arrived as a replacement for Jack Conan on Sunday night, is another serious setback.

It’s just as well that Ireland have a nine-day break to the final pool game against Samoa that, on the evidence of this performance, could also prove problematic. At least with temperatures and humidity set to fall between now and that game in Fukuoka, Ireland have a period to recalibrate, get their injured players back on track, and get this show back on the road.

Because time is running out.

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