How quickly things change. Back-to-back Six Nations champions Ireland appeared in rude health heading into this World Cup when they dispatched Wales with consummate ease only four weeks ago.
While nobody was getting overly excited then — it was a distinctly understrength Welsh combination — the fall off in performance in the intervening games against Scotland, Wales again and England is quite worrying.
While waiting for colleagues immediately after last Saturday’s game in Twickenham, I lost count of the number of stressed Irish fans who approached me looking for reassurance that Ireland were holding something in reserve for the bigger challenges down the road.
Unfortunately I wasn’t in any great position to offer comfort as Ireland’s shortcomings over the last few weeks feature far too many recurring issues. You can’t just press a button when the French arrive in a few weeks and hope that all will be right on the night.
It is no consolation that we are not alone. Wales looked very strong after accounting for us in Dublin yet a catastrophic run of injuries against Italy has now forced first choice scrum half Rhys Webb and their points scoring machine Leigh Halfpenny out of the tournament.
Add that to the loss of highly influential centre Jonathan Davies at the end of last season and half the Welsh back line have failed to even make it to the starting line. To compound that, their most influential forward, Alun-Wyn Jones, remains a doubt following his knee injury at the Aviva Stadium. That changes the whole dynamic of their ridiculously difficult pool.
England, who looked in disarray only two weeks ago in Paris, were very impressive across a whole range of areas against Ireland last weekend yet, when we were there for the taking, they failed to pull the trigger.
Are they worried down under about the perceived threat to the supremacy that has seen six of the seven World Cups to date go to SANZAR countries? I doubt it. When Joe Schmidt was asked prior to last Saturdays’s game what he wanted from the fixture he replied “a performance that sets the tone for the World Cup.” I am quite sure what Ireland delivered on the day wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. With so many areas requiring surgery over the next fortnight, the coach will be a busy man.
The big worry from Saturday is that the defensive frailties evident against Scotland recently when Ireland missed 23 tackles, resurfaced once again with another 22 missed against England. I have no doubt the greater intensity that will automatically be carried into the World Cup games will result in a far more aggressive press and more dynamic defensive line speed. Les Kiss is a proven defensive coach and he has the ability to fix those shortcomings before Italy and France come calling.
The other concern for me, and the most notable factor at Twickenham, is the lack of raw pace in the Irish back line. That is something that even the best of coaches cannot rectify without a change in personnel. By comparison, England through Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and especially Jonny May showed lightening acceleration and quick feet that left several Irish defenders grasping thin air. Our back line is lacking that priceless commodity at present.
To make up for that, Schmidt is famed for concocting some really effective attacking power plays off set pieces but we just haven’t seen any in recent times. The hope is that these are being worked on and fine-tuned behind closed doors in Carton House but we won’t know that for certain until we meet the French.
Ireland’s current lack of invention in attack is best summarised by three key stats from last weekend’s encounter — two clean line breaks (England 7), nine defenders beaten (England 22), and two offloads (England 14).
Couple that with the fact that in the defeats to Wales and England, both won the battle for the gain line by winning the collisions decisively. Put simply, Ireland were outmuscled by a more aggressive physical force. French coach Philippe Saint-Andre is no tactical genius but even he must surely have seen the template for his team to stop Ireland building any momentum in the key, pool-defining, contest on October 11.
In some respects, Wales and England may yet have done us a big favour in that they have highlighted issues that will need to be rectified. We have three weeks to do it. Encouragingly, having been pummelled for long periods in both of those contests, Ireland found a way back, never panicked and could even have won both games from a very unlikely position. That bodes well as we will hardly be as passive again as we appeared in the opening 40 minutes last weekend.
The calamitous nature of the closing phase of both games was also slightly surreal. Against Wales, Donnacha Ryan replaced Luke Fitzgerald with Jordi Murphy playing the last 12 minutes in midfield.
On Saturday, we had three tight-head props on the field and Chris Henry on the wing when for the second week in a row, Ireland ran out of fit backs.
At least any serious injuries of the type shipped by Wales were avoided and Schmidt can now plan accordingly even if the last thing Conor Murray needed was another concussive incident. I only remarked in this column last week how Murphy’s Law comes into play in an area of vulnerability and, right on cue, Murray gets knocked out just when Schmidt takes the calculated gamble of selecting only two scrum halves in his World Cup squad.
The fact that this is the Limerick man’s third such incident since the Australian game last November must be a worry even if, thankfully, he appeared perfect after the game. He will be closely monitored over the next few weeks. If it is deemed necessary to stand him down for three weeks then Ian Madigan will be required to cover scrum-half off the bench for at least the opening pool game against Canada. Not ideal.
Watching the number of players on both sides in Twickenham that were going down with cramp in the final quarter only served to highlight once again a fundamental issue that raises its head this time every four years — the inescapable fact that the southern hemisphere sides hold a distinct advantage in a tournament starting in September.
With no competitive rugby in months, all our sides are playing catch up in terms of match-day fitness and requisite game time. While the southern hemisphere’s best are resting up and tweaking their game plans after months of intense Super XV action with their clubs followed by the international Rugby Championship, our coaches are having to chop and change their selections in an attempt to ensure that all of their squad are offered some semblance of meaningful pitch time.
The players are like students cramming for a crucial exam. Hence you have key personnel like Johnny Sexton unable to see out the 80 minutes because they are cramping up every time they touch the ball. A World Cup demands that all sides arrive at the event in peak condition. Trying to make sure that happens is a really big challenge for coaches and conditioning staff on this side of the world. Another reason why we should be examining the viability of a global season?
That’s for another day.
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