So where do we stand after the autumn interntionals, asks Donal Lenihan?
The November Test window tends to be revealing at the best of times but given the proximity to next year’s World Cup, the form and tactical nuances displayed by the top sides will now be open to forensic examination, not least by the heavily populated video analyst departments that are part and parcel of all front line teams.
It won’t take them very long to come to the conclusion that World Cup holders New Zealand are still far and away the leading side in the Test arena with their continual evolution opening an appreciable gap between them and the chasing pack.
It won’t take long either to work out that current Six Nations champions Ireland have also made further strides as Joe Schmidt, now a full year into his international tenure, has come to terms with the differing set of demands posed when preparing a side for Test rugby.
What is clear is that Ireland have moved up a notch in terms of mental application over the last 10 minutes of Test rugby and are better able to cope with closing out tight contests. That could yet prove the most significant advance and replicates the harsh lesson New Zealand had to absorb after their shock quarter-final exit from the 2007 World Cup.
Indeed one could argue that despite their amazing skillset, the quality of finishers out wide and their unerring efficiency at the breakdown, the greatest attribute of the current New Zealand side is their ability to close out tight contests when other sides are in mental and physical meltdown.
Their multi-phase match-clinching score at the death against Ireland last season didn’t happen by accident. As a consequence they were able to repeat that feat against England in the opening test at Eden Park last June when Conrad Smith scored a try with three minutes left to deny the visitors a draw and against Australia in their Bledisloe Cup game in Brisbane last month when a converted try in added time gave them a one-point victory.
With 11 minutes left in Cardiff last Saturday, Leigh Halfpenny kicked Wales a point ahead and the all of Wales began to believe they were on the cusp of a historic result. Over the course of the next eight minutes New Zealand scored three tries. They tease you and play with your head. To beat them you must first and foremost overcome the mental challenge.
Ireland are now beginning to achieve similar results even if the wins last Saturday and against France in Paris last March were secured by protecting a lead as opposed to having to engineer a try to win. That requires a different skillset.
In addition, this Irish team has become far more comfortable in dealing with the greater intensity posed when playing against the big southern hemisphere sides and don’t appear to require a series of games to get up to that pitch. That is a comforting place to be with the World Cup looming. The only caveat here is that it will be at least 11 months before Ireland lock horns with another Rugby Championship side again and that will have the added pressure that comes with knockout rugby — a World Cup quarter-final against either Argentina or New Zealand.
That was something Ireland failed to deal with at the last tournament.
On the face of it, Ireland couldn’t really have asked for much more in the past month with a clean sweep of victories achieved on the back of a long injury list. The IRB ranking system rates Ireland as the third best side in the world at present and when you consider that we enjoyed a comprehensive victory over the side placed one slot ahead of us, on the surface things are looking quite rosy.
But, for a dose of reality you only have to think back to the last time Ireland were in this position with a perfect return of three from three incorporating wins over South Africa and Australia in the November series prior to the 2007 World Cup in France. We all know what happened there.
Schmidt is grateful for that small mercy and will use it to remind everyone that when it comes to a World Cup, nothing can be taken for granted.
Go back again to that 2007 tournament. England were in disarray when, as reigning champions, they were humiliated 36-0 in their Pool A encounter against South Africa. Yet they somehow cobbled themselves together and made it all to way to a second successive final, beating a French side in the semi-final that had dumped New Zealand out the previous week.
Think back to the 2011 tournament in New Zealand when France were shambolic in the pool stage, losing to tournament minnows Tonga in their worst ever result of the professional era. Yet somehow from the ashes of that devastating defeat they managed to make it all the way to the final only to lose by a point to the hosts after some questionable decisions by South African referee Craig Joubert.
The bottom line is that form 10 months out from a World Cup is not a reliable indicator as to how a team will perform in tournament. If it was then New Zealand would have won the vast majority of the seven events to date, yet have only two World Cups to their name, the same as Australia and South Africa.
It is comforting to know that in addition to the 34 players that saw game time over the last few weeks there are at least another 10 players out there who harbour genuine aspirations of regaining a place this time next year.
The availability of Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry (subject to recovery from his recent surgery), Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls means a selection headache any coach would welcome. With only 31 slots available in a World Cup squad, Schmidt will have some serious pruning to do if all those players are available for selection.
Right now with just nine Tests left before the World Cup opener against Canada next September and all of those against very familiar European foes — we face Wales three times over that period alone — it was vital for the continued progression of this side that it backed up the great win over South Africa with another big scalp against Australia. A lack of consistency has been the biggest single failing of this group of players over the last few years but even that is now being addressed. While waiting to do a post-match interview for RTÉ after Saturday’s win, I watched Joe Schmidt going through the same exercise with Claire McNamara. I couldn’t believe how downbeat the coach appeared.
Within an hour news broke of his hospitalisation and subsequent appendix operation. Part of me was relieved that he was sick as otherwise I felt there would be no pleasing the man if that was how he felt after a brilliant month’s work. It is great to know Joe is human after all. I’m sure that once he recovers he will get the chance the savour the progress his side has made over the course of this Guinness series.
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