Joe Schmidt doesn’t forget.
It was March of last year, in the wake of that dramatic but tryless win in Paris, when the Ireland head coach was asked if his side’s attack was, well, a bit predictable. Warren Gatland’s jibes to that effect from two years previous weren’t referenced in the question but Schmidt made a point of reminding everyone.
His response was lengthy and detailed, the annoyance clear. “Sometimes it is frustrating because one opposition coach has tried to create that story and people have picked it up without doing their own analysis,” he explained.
“I think there is a degree of frustration from our players.”
Gatland was at it again in Dublin two weeks ago, after his side lost to their hosts, when he painted the Irish attack as one-dimensional. That may or may not be, but the fact is that Ireland have scored 151 tries across 47 games through this World Cup cycle. Wales have managed just 102 in 48.
Ireland’s record with five-pointers is almost identical to that of England’s in this window so both are clearly doing something right, even if some perceptions have been hard to shift. The only side better than those two, by the way, is New Zealand, who racked up a ridiculous tally of 251.
There has been no real evidence that Ireland are going to deviate from the tried and trusted at this World Cup. A reliance on the basics, a selection of carefully crafted strike moves and an attritional approach by the forwards has served them well and likely will again against a Scottish team that favours a looser approach.
“If you had wanted to go down the Scotland route you’d need to have started two years ago,” says Bernard Jackman who will be analysing the tournament for RTÉ. “Let’s be honest, Scotland are underpinned by the Glasgow players who had Gregor (Townsend) and yet they’re still not able to bring any real consistency.
“The Scotland game is great when the opposition get loose and let you play but the reality is that a top-tier country won’t let that happen. England had Scotland beaten hands down (in the last Six Nations) but just got loose and Scotland came back. That’ll never happen again. It was a freak result.”
So Ireland can beat Scotland tomorrow by relying on brute force. Scotland’s tight five simply does not compare to that of their counterparts and Wales got a taste of how Ireland can turn the screw in that Dublin game earlier this month when Schmidt’s side dominated possession and territory with a forwards-dominated approach.
What that game also showed, though, was Ireland can struggle to locate a Plan B when a defence manages to shut them down inside their own 22. It wasn’t the first time that happened and the concern is that this will become a more pressing issue if Ireland progress through the pool and face a side like South Africa.
The Boks would relish that.
“If we are going back to that traditional style of rugby... It is hugely attritional in a tournament environment,” says Eddie O’Sullivan. “You put a lot of work into each game and it is highly demanding as a style of rugby. You really need good dividends out of it.”
We can bully some teams, as O’Sullivan says, but not all of them. If he was Townsend, he would target three players: shut down James Ryan — whose average of 13 carries a game is just one off Billy Vunipola’s — Bundee Aki, and Jacob Stockdale. Do that, he believes, and you stop Ireland.
Opinions differ as to whether Ireland’s supposedly basic approach to attack can take them deep into this tournament. Jackman believes it can, though he would like to see a tad more subtlety, the odd pass before or in contact that changes the point of attack and makes a defence think a split-second longer.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Ireland have already worked on a game plan to play New Zealand and a couple of power plays for it,” he says. “Same for South Africa. That was probably put in the locker in July. We are not going to be a team that plays off the counter and turnovers.”
There is no doubt but that Ireland will attempt the type of orchestrated moves that delivered memorable tries, among them CJ Stander’s against England last year when Tadhg Furlong acted as the pivot, and Jacob Stockdale’s against New Zealand 10 months ago, when the All Blacks were caught down the short side.
There is a concern, though, that too much depends on Jonathan Sexton. England have named George Ford and Owen Farrell for their opener against Tonga. New Zealand are going with Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15. Ireland have no second playmaker. Not even a Joey Carbery on the bench.
“I think you do need a second playmaker but there is no doubt that we are reliant on Johnny,” says Brian O’Driscoll. “Funny that, a team being reliant on the world player of the year ... If we want to get to a semi-final or a final or, God forbid, win a World Cup, we need Johnny Sexton to be absolutely humming. That’s the reality of it.”
All of which brings us to Garry Ringrose.
Robbie Henshaw’s latest injury means we’ll never know if Ringrose was destined to start this game on the bench, as many felt. Even with that, there were doubts as to whether he would edge out Chris Farrell for the 13 jersey, but his is a talent few others in this squad can match.
Schmidt has proposed the 24-year-old centre as an emergency out-half and a stopgap nine for this World Cup. He has played him on the wing during the warm-ups too and the Ireland head coach has even referenced Ringrose as a second playmaker when that very topic was raised in recent weeks.
O’Driscoll doesn’t profess to have seen much evidence of that but the former Ireland captain had a penchant for elbowing his way into first receiver when he played. He did it in the realisation that it was easier to get real width when your out-half, probably your best passer, was further out the line as a second or third distributor.
And it’s a string he’d like Ringrose to add to his bow.
“He needs the platform set up for him but you also have to go after it yourself sometimes too. You gotta take the bull by the horns and not feel that, ‘oh, I didn’t really get the possession or an opportunity’. His elusive running, he can get in at first receiver and sometimes he can run against the grain.”
Every little bit will help. If Ireland are to go where they have never gone before, then it stands to reason that they will have to do something they have never done before.