Tommy Bowe believes Ireland’s players will have been “rattled” by their Six Nations defeat to Wales last March.
Joe Schmidt bid farewell to the tournament with a 25-7 hammering by Wales in Cardiff, a win that gave Warren Gatland’s men a Grand Slam title, and bringing a disappointing end to a championship in which Schmidt had such a formidable record.
Ireland lost at home to England in the opening game – a first home defeat in the competition since Schmidt took charge in 2015, before being dismantled by Wales in the Principality Stadium finale.
Bowe talked up Ireland’s chances ahead of that game in Wales, predicting Ireland’s “biggest performance of the Six Nations”.
He admits to being as shocked as any other observer in the aftermath.
“The Six Nations has rattled the supporters, it has rattled all of us,” Bowe said. “That Welsh match was not something any of us were expecting to see, particularly the nature of the performance.
“From then, Leinster have gone very well, they’ve won the PRO14, Munster got to two more semi-finals but we’re still not playing the rugby that we were probably playing 12 months ago, from a club point of view.
Most of the Ireland squad have already put their feet up, but last week’s 44-man squad named by Schmidt is a reminder of how close the build-up to Japan really is.
Ireland face Wales, Italy, and England before they head east, and Bowe believes there is some work to be done on rebuilding the squad’s confidence.
“There is a huge amount of experience there, they’ve had some outstanding days but then there’s the young guys who maybe aren’t used to losing, who aren’t used to a big loss like Cardiff,” Bowe said.
“It’s a shock to the system for those guys so it’s trying to build those guys back up so when they put that green jersey back on again, they’re back feeling how they did last November.
“Unfortunately, these games are going to be very difficult. It is going to be a difficult period. The Six Nations was that opportunity to finish on a high, that Welsh match was the perfect opportunity, but it went the opposite direction.
“In terms of a confidence point of view, it’s about game-time. The guys maybe need to play, the people who are feeling under pressure.
“It’s one of the things about getting older, if you fall out of confidence... that’s always something I found as a bit of an issue. As a player, I always had to play myself back into form and you need a few games to find that.”
The Ireland players looked lost at times during the defeats to England and Wales, and Bowe expects the coaching ticket to offer up some fresh ideas in the coming weeks. Schmidt utilised Ireland’s natural aerial abilities a lot in his early days, Bowe says, and he is looking for a return to some kicking options in the near future.
“Whenever they see a new gameplan, and that is something Joe and Andy Farrell are very, very good at... they’ll show video footage of why they’re doing it and the benefit of doing it and when the team all buys into that, it gives a huge sense of optimism.
“Then when they get into the game, it’s a case of making it work and trying to show that it does pay off and the players will build off that. It’s a case of going through phases and then at a certain level, they see if they can open up the field and put it in behind,” Bowe added.
“I will imagine Joe will have something in his armoury. The Scottish match is first up but hopefully, if we get to the quarter-finals and it is a South Africa or New Zealand, we can’t expect to be going out to try and out-muscle them because they’ll be ready for that.
“And Joe knows that. I don’t know about you guys, but he’s a lot smarter than me. He’ll have something up his sleeve, there is no doubt about it.”