The Ireland of 2018 is dead and buried now

At the 2011 World Cup, Rory Best damaged the AC joint in his shoulder in the final pool game against Italy.

It was a week before the quarter-final against Wales, and Best’s injury was a standard five-week job.

Even when the damage was scaled down by medical staff to a sprained AC, a seven-day turnaround was still considered remote at best.

But Best played against Wales. It’s nearly eight years since that happened but what he overcame to play sticks with me, that astonishingly high pain threshold Best possesses. I think about it quite often. Rory Best leads. There’s a damn good reason he is still Ireland captain and why even at 37, Joe Schmidt wants him on board in Japan. That sort of thing moves people. He’d have a big bank of credit with this group of Irish forwards.

Ireland are struggling to find their fluency this year. 2018 seems some time ago now and when lads are looking around, leaders must step up. The trouble is Ireland’s big-game players — the likes of Sexton and Murray — haven’t been firing in the Six Nations. You need totems to guide Ireland out of their anxiety.

People ask what is experience? Bestie has seen this type of situation on numerous occasions so no-one should underestimate his capacity to steady the ship this week and at the Aviva against France. There’s a whole new lexicon of rugby phraseology these days but there’s no new way to say that Best is a hard bastard, who leads his men and is respected by his peers. It’s one thing talking in a pub about a fella putting his head in places where there’s an even chance it will get stood on, but Rory Best does that week in, week out.

His return to the front row on Sunday is important tactically too in the context of the French game plan. The visitors will bank on being more physical up front than their hosts but Best will be looking to ensure Ireland are more disciplined and accurate. And that they retain composure in difficult moments. And France will cause some difficult moments.

It’s a very Irish thing to suggest the weather and the crowd may dictate Ireland’s tempo. Sunday afternoon kicks-off increase the intrigue of that. Sabbath starts are not something we’ve been especially good at, and even the Saturday evening game against England seemed to lack a little engagement from the home crowd.

This is an entire area I believe the Irish fanbase underestimates in terms of its importance. Ireland need their crowd at this moment. Only if you’ve experienced the role they played at Thomond Park for Munster back in the day will you fully appreciate what that means, but it shouldn’t be hard to get: Players are human, they are not robotic, they feed off this type of thing.

Some have said the team must give the crowd something to get their teeth into, and I accept that, but the importance this Sunday of not giving the French any

encouragement is significant.

Do not give the French any reason to be hopeful. You want to give France a good reason to run out the gate. And then you want to slam it shut behind them. Go two scores up and keep the foot down. That’s up to the leaders on the Irish side, and Rory Best will be one.

The omission of Sean Cronin from the 37-man squad for the French game will have sent ripples of apprehension through the squad, irrespective what reason the management advances for his exclusion. Players are selfish. And everyone’s first concern is ‘that could be me’ when something like this happens, especially in a World Cup year.

Cronin would have been sleeping well now if he’d had a stormer against Italy but it’s the uncertainty now and those comments from Simon Easterby that will have alarm bells going off in his head. I am not doubting the veracity of what Simon said but it’s hard to see how a discussion about strength in depth is good for Cronin.

Here’s the thing. If Ireland are bringing three hookers to the World Cup, then as a game-changer Sean Cronin is in my squad. However, Joe Schmidt could sit across the table from me right now and offer a different variation of ‘game-changer’. He might say Ireland lost five lineouts against Italy which presented five possessions and attacking platforms to the opposition and basically gave them the ball for 15 minutes to attack us. Everyone sees Sean’s electric bursts in the last 30 minutes and his brilliance off the back of a maul but there are more mundane, though key elements to his job. Joe’s Ireland craves possession to enable them control the ball and errors out of touch make that more difficult. There are different ways of interpreting the word game-changer.

France are talking themselves up a little this week with coach Jacques Brunel identifying the areas where they believe they can get at Ireland. One win and their confidence is through the roof! However, they have good individuals, and people sometimes neglect that.

Irrespective of his fitness levels, Mathieu Bastereaud is still a giant of a man, who commands attention in every opposition team meeting.

If he gets the ball, it takes a serious tackle to stop the guy. The balance in the backs looks better now, the Toulouse quartet giving it a nice balance and better understanding. Even if France might be the only country in world rugby which believes it has its mojo back after one victory, if they start free-wheeling, they can make life very uncomfortable.

On the basis of what we read, the FFR president Bernard Laporte is rolling up his sleeves and weighing in on the rugby side of things at the moment.

Though that seems untenable from the outside, the role of the president in French rugby is as wide as it is deep. Most club presidents in the Top 14 are benefactors and almost always the controller-general. It might seem somewhat unusual for a president to be involving himself in team matters but not if you’ve had the coaching career of Bernard Laporte. One might stretch a point and suggest that things will settle down now for Jacques Brunel after the Scotland victory, but I wouldn’t bet on it. To do so would overlook the chaotic nature of French rugby, where anything can happen and frequently does.

Dupont and Ntamack is a half-back combination we should get used to seeing. They bring talent and the self-belief that a stellar season with Toulouse in the Top 14 can bring, and if it takes five Tests for any half-back pairing to gel at test level, imagine what they could be like together come the World Cup?

Brunel has heard the same interviews and comments from the Irish camp that you and I have. Management and players have acknowledged they are low on confidence. I hear this week we are in a ‘rut’ now which is pretty strange language for a team after winning 20 of their last 22 Tests.

But the comments from All Black coach Steve Hansen are hard to disagree with. Ireland are now finding out what the business end of being the hunted is like. The All Blacks have dealt with it for over 100 months and Hansen believes Ireland are struggling with their lofty status at the moment.

Once again, some context is in order. There’s been a bit of uncertainty about the half-backs this year which has people concerned. After the incredible highs of last year, it’s less a surprise that there’s been a bit of a dip from Ireland than the fact that two talismen, Conor and Johnny, have been struggling.

That’s the problem with 2018, when you had fellas near their optimum all the time. In sport, that’s not sustainable.

Hence the break this month, when all return to their clubs for the knockout phase of the Heineken Cup, is a good thing. It will put distance between an unconvincing start to 2019 and their World Cup countdown.

Let’s call it here: The Ireland of 2018 is no more — it’s dead and buried. The by-product of that is less of those 50-50 decisions from a referee, and a fair bit more optimism from the opposition going against Ireland. The thing that underpinned the Ireland of 2018 was an almost negligible error rate — that’s been noticeably higher this year.

It’s one more reason Ireland needs its Sunday best from a packed Aviva Stadium this weekend.

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