It wasn’t the choice of venue for this season’s Guinness PRO14 final that caught me by surprise when it was announced last week. It was the date. Cardiff City Stadium will host the decider on June 20 next, three weeks later than normal.
Considering that Ireland’s wider World Cup squad assembled on June 16 in preparation for the opening RWC game against Scotland on September 22, this season will extend to 369 days for some, should their province make it to the last day of domestic competition. Some nod to player welfare that.
Right now, at least for the players still battling it out for the 31 slots available for the Japanese extravaganza, that season finale is but a faint spot on the horizon. From a rugby perspective, the World Cup is the only show in town, with the opening ceremony only 23 days away. After last Saturday’s abject performance in Twickenham however, even players assured of their slot on the plane only a few days ago will have started to question themselves.
“From the outset, let me put my cards firmly on the table. I’m worried.”
When you consider I penned those words in advance of last weekend’s game when travelling abroad, you can imagine how I felt after watching a recording of the match last Sunday?
Ireland have never reached the dizzy heights of a World Cup semi-final. Such were the heroics of 2018 — a Grand Slam, a series win over the Wallabies in Australia, and a second win ever over New Zealand — making the last-four was the minimum expected return.
2019 has had a far more sobering effect on Irish ambitions after a disappointing Six Nations campaign launched with a sobering defeat to England in Dublin and book-ended by an even more demoralising loss on the road to Wales. Last weekend was even more depressing.
Yet, in the somewhat daft estimation of the ranking system devised by the powers that be in World Rugby, a victory over England would have elevated Ireland to the number one ranked team in the game. How could that be?
Ironically, on a weekend when New Zealand crushed the Wallabies 36-0 to retain the Bledisloe Cup for a seventeenth season in a row, a 13-6 win for Wales over England propelled Warren Gatland’s men to the summit of rugby’s ranking system for the first time in their history.
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New Zealand had held that accolade for 509 consecutive weeks — even Tiger Woods at his best only managed to retain the top slot for 281 weeks on the bounce. Yet a win for Ireland would have dethroned the Welsh from their perch after a mere seven days. As it happened, Gatland’s charges need not have worried about losing their their new found status.
The fact that next Saturday’s outing against Ireland represents Gatland’s last home game in charge, after 12 years and 116 tests incorporating three Grand Slams, the usually ecstatic Welsh crowd will be even more keen to show their appreciation for everything the New Zealander has achieved in his time at the helm.
After just two warm-up tests, Ireland have already backed themselves into a corner and, at the very least, must perform against Wales. The two tests played to date have already assumed a far greater importance for Ireland than Schmidt would have wanted, not least in terms of the psychological welfare of the squad prior to leaving for Tokyo.
It’s a bit early to be experiencing that backs-to-the wall syndrome but the players are already feeling the pressure after Ireland’s Twickenham no-show. England always looked more primed to win last weekend’s contest. Schmidt declared in advance that Eddie Jones’s men were probably a week ahead in terms of preparation.
After this audition, it appeared a hell of a lot longer than that. For whatever reason, getting preparations right for a World Cup has always proved challenging for Ireland, even if Schmidt appeared to get things spot on four years ago, despite two defeats in the warm-up phase.
The 21-13 loss to England in Twickenham four years ago appears minuscule compared to what Ireland had to endure last weekend while a 10-16 home defeat to Wales in the final warm-up game had no impact as Ireland proceeded to top their pool for the second tournament running. Injuries more than any deficiencies in the preparatory phase proved the killer blow in a well documented collapse against Argentina in the quarter-final.
It should help Ireland’s cause next weekend that Gatland intends to field a weaker side to the one that faced England twice recently. Wales’ 33-19 defeat in Twickenham was nowhere near as deflating as Ireland encountered. Wales learned to deal with the power and physicality England produced and reversed the result in Cardiff a week later, pulling off a 13-6 win to set them up nicely for what’s coming down the track.
Compared to Ireland, Wales are in rude health heading to the World Cup, regardless of what happens next weekend.
Right now Schmidt’s biggest challenge is in getting his team selection right. The opening warm-up against Italy in Dublin appears like a wasted opportunity as, already, some of our front line players are scrambling for game time.
James Ryan, Jack Conan, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, and Johnny Sexton — who is unlikely to feature this weekend either, which is a real worry given the injury cloud hanging over Joey Carbery — all look nailed on to start the World Cup opener against Scotland but are already playing catch-up.
Having your captain under the type of heat Rory Best is feeling at present doesn’t help either. He looked way off the pace against England. The failure of Ireland’s line out to function has to be addressed as this key phase has been the launchpad for everything Ireland has achieved over the last few years.
Schmidt will have to revisit the prospect of starting either Iain Henderson or Tadhg Beirne in the back row in tandem with Devin Toner and James Ryan in the second row, a combination that would also aid Ireland’s faltering lineout no end.
CJ Stander was way off the pace last weekend and, with the Springboks in mind, it might be worth having another look at Peter O’Mahony at open side, even if Schmidt will probably need an out-and-out No 7 to compete with Hamish Watson against Scotland.
The inclusion of Jean Kleyn in the opening two games in an effort to fast-track him as an international lock just hasn’t worked. Schmidt is acutely aware that Ireland will need big men to match South Africa in a potential quarter-final clash but Kleyn is nowhere near the enforcer Schmidt craves. While he is a bigger specimen than either of his opponents in Twickenham, he enjoyed nothing like the impact made by the excellent Saracens pair of Maro Itoje and George Kruis.
It’s too early to press the panic button just yet, as these warm-up games are notoriously fraught with danger but, already, you get the feeling that Ireland are badly in need of a good news story from the Principality Stadium to brighten their flight back to Dublin on Saturday evening.