England in Dublin last February was a “mental failure”. Cardiff was a “capitulation”. So what does Gordon D’Arcy make of last weekend’s record defeat to England in Twickenham?
“It’s not the sign or the trigger I wanted,” he said, having urged Joe Schmidt’s men to send a worried nation a pick-me-up with the World Cup just weeks away. It is an ominous sign, it really is. From a coaching or a player’s perspective you’ll go and look at key mistakes, lineout misfiring led to tries, blah blah blah, but we were outgunned in most areas of the field, and that would be a worrying sign.”
There is much Schmidt, Andy Farrell, the defence coach, Simon Easterby, the lineout coach, in particular, will trawl through after the 57-15 defeat in west London. D’arcy was unimpressed by the communication in defence, but put that down to something that happens in pre-season, when a host of players are playing their first game.
“It wasn’t system errors, it happens, unfortunately it was in front of 60,000 people at Twickenham,” he said.
The lineout will be torn apart limb by limb, with Schmidt forced to defend hooker Rory Best at a rare Tuesday press conference yesterday, while the player himself has been pulled from a media event today to presumably help remove the weight already on his shoulders. But other areas are malfunctioning too, not just the captain’s role. The slow ball Conor Murray is being asked to work with at the ruck, for example.
“It’s a combination of the tempo the ball is going at, between the 9s and 10s,” D’Arcy says, of the slow ball the Munster man is struggling with.
I’d have to look at it a bit more, but it is a concern. You’d have to ask the question – is it Ireland controlling the tempo or is it opposition teams controlling the tempo Ireland are playing at? If it’s the defensive team, then what are Ireland doing to try and counter that?
D’Arcy wants to see Jack Conan start in Wales this weekend, as well as Chris Farrell – “to offer something different” in both the backrow and midfield. Two big carriers may make a difference, but having discussed some elements of the loss in London, we looked back to last November for some context.
In the run up to the New Zealand game in Aviva Stadium, D’Arcy wrote in his Irish Times column of wanting to see how the team can deal with “being a world leader”. The former midfielder wanted to see how Johnny Sexton and company could back up fighting talk, and widespread expectation. The very first game of 2019 brought Eddie Jones’ men to Dublin, and we all know what happened next. Is it all the top two inches?
“It’s new territory for Ireland,” D’Arcy says. “It’s all good and well and saying ‘we need to be comfortable with being the best’, but I think on balance — what’s happened from November last year, I think the effort required from Ireland to achieve that result was so ‘taxing’ is probably a good word to use, with the benefit of hindsight.
“There’s always going to be a natural comedown, a de-pressurising, because people talk about the pressure they’re under, the pressure to succeed, I’m not sure New Zealand have to live in that same space.
"With Ireland it’s always around that collective approach, which means there’s an awful amount of pressure, because you don’t have individual moments there, whereas if you look at a New Zealand or South Africa they just give the ball to Duane Vermuelen or Ardie Savea, and they just create something out of nothing. So there’s that pressure...
“Yes, they genuinely believed they could do [beat the All Blacks] and that showed in that performance, but then it was ‘where do we go to next?’.
Potentially, they may not have acknowledged the effort that went into it, and then realised they had to come back to go forward. They tried to keep going forward and when it didn’t work England were waiting for them and things began to unravel.”
Just under a year after Ireland stormed Twickenham to win the Six Nations and grand slam, heaping pressure on Jones, England returned to Dublin last February and ‘did a number’ on the Irish, marking a first home defeat in the championship for Schmidt.
“They talked about not being prepared for that, I don’t think it was physical, I don’t think it was rest, it was just mentally they weren’t ready to get back up to that standard,” D’Arcy explains.
“Some things are easier to prepare for because you’re focused only on that, but if they were honest with themselves, they clearly weren’t as focused as they were before. The net result of that game, England threw everything they had at Ireland in the first 15 minutes and got all the results they needed.
“You look back at that game in an analytical/coaching kind of way, which Joe would have done, and there were definitely moments which Ireland could have stopped English tries or flipped the pressure back on to them. Things could have gone a different way, in a sliding doors kind of way, but I still think they’d have had an average Six Nations but it wouldn’t have been as bad as it was.”
Two defeats to England would suggest a reason to worry, but in assessing this latest defeat one must also mention the hammering in Cardiff. A one-off against a well-drilled nemesis this is not.
“It was a capitulation at that stage, and it’s completely understandable because of what’s gone before,” D’Arcy said. “The way the Six Nations had unfolded, they were swimming against a current at that point, and the people who were usually the current changers weren’t firing.
“So, the reliables in the team weren’t firing, and there wasn’t anyone else shouldering that burden. That doesn’t happen in an instant, the people who control momentum have to allow others to do so, and we may see that over the next two games, different people come to the fore.”