Ireland managed to end up on the wrong side of the penalty count in both the win over Scotland (7-6) and loss to Japan (9-6). That is atypical for a team that takes great stock in its accuracy and discipline.
Admittedly, these were not high totals but Ireland nevertheless failed to make a good impression on the respective referees, Wayne Barnes and Angus Gardner.
Joe Schmidt revealed pointedly on Tuesday that three of the four offside calls made against his team in the Japan game were incorrect, according to feedback from World Rugby, but that will be of no solace after the event when the rising penalty count had such a knock-on effect and trickled into the general malaise.
“Discipline is something that we really pride ourselves on and we just allowed Japan after that 20 minutes when we felt we were going well, we just allowed them to release the pressure a little bit,” says captain Rory Best.
“Then we allowed them access into the game and we allowed their confidence to grow; their crowd became a factor and then the more we did that, the more we started to play within ourselves.”
This is not Best’s first rodeo. He has seen it all in his four World Cups since the disaster of 2007 and experienced the fallout when Ireland teams make the fatal error of looking beyond what is in front of their noses and that has been a major focus of his efforts with the current squad, reminding them of the consequences of falling into the same traps their predecessors did.
“It’s alright saying that you’re building, but ultimately, quarter-finals, the last two World Cups we went into them in a really, really good place,” he said.
“We beat Australia in 2011, topped a group that nobody expected us to, and everyone was saying ‘who have we got in the semis’ because we only had Wales in the quarters and then we got absolutely hammered.
“It was the same with Argentina, everyone thought the same thing and booked the flights for the semi-finals. But sport doesn’t work like that — a bit like we found out against Japan.
“We’re drawing on the positivity of having a lesson to learn in a World Cup. Every team has one at some point, we had ours in the second game. We need to make sure we’re better than that.”
And not for the first time this summer, Best quashed any suggestion that Schmidt’s 2019 squad has any resemblance to Eddie O’Sullivan’s 2007 touring party to France when struggles against Namibia and Georgia led to a horrible pool-stage exit at the hands of the hosts and Argentina.
“Everyone really, really wants to reference back to 2007. But this is a completely different group of players, completely different management and I see absolutely no similarities to ‘07.”
Ireland’s defeat to Japan was all the more galling for Best because Ireland took their foot off the throat of the hosts having gone 12-3 up inside the first quarter. A scoreless half-hour against the Russians between tries three and four points to a similar lack of ruthlessness. The captain wants his players to not switch off having taken a lead but accelerate further away from their prey.
“I think we did go after Japan for 20 minutes... It’s almost like after 20 minutes at 12-3, there was a sense that ‘oh, we’ve done Scotland, we’re 12-3 up, we don’t lose from here’ and we released a little bit of pressure.
“It definitely wasn’t complacency, but I just think that with the good start we assumed we’d win. It’s a hard lesson to take in a World Cup, but I keep referencing back to the fact that it’s something we’ll now need to learn.
“The next time we’re 12-3 up, we need to push on and make sure we go to 19-3, 15-3 and keep trying to drive that home.”
If ever there was a need for all concerned to take a big deep breath, it is at the end of a trying week and, mercifully for Ireland, a nine-day turnaround from Russia to Samoa in Fukuoka enables the players and management to get a couple of days off before starting a seven-day lead-in to their final game in Pool A.
Not a hint that anyone is going off the rails, certainly not in the middle of the biggest tournament of their careers but a chance to escape the training ground and properly relax in each other’s company without a rugby ball in sight, even if the topic is never really very far away from anyone’s thoughts.
“We’re going out for a meal tonight as a big group,” Best said of Ireland’s first evening in the city of Fukuoka on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island.
“It’s nice to be down near the beach, to actually enjoy the warm weather. We’ll have Saturday and Sunday to ourselves.
“At the end of the day, we’re all rugby fans. There’s decent games, tomorrow (England v Argentina) certainly will be one to watch.
“We’ll just enjoy it, we’ve a committee of Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell, Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki, and a couple of others... they’ll put together a list of activities for us to have the option to do.
“You’ll never get away from rugby here, but it’s a chance to take a breath. You’ll find that boys will go for a coffee, more often than not the front-row will go somewhere together and the conversation will swing back to Thursday night, or Samoa and generally it’s scrums because we don’t really know much about anything else.”
With so much negativity swirling around Ireland from media, former players, and supporters this past week, Best, as one of the senior members of the Ireland World Cup squad, has to guard against it infiltrating the touring party.
“It’s very important that we stay positive and we keep going forward.
“We’re under no illusions as to how difficult it was against Russia and I think we tried to play.
“What was frustrating against Japan was we were making mistakes but it wasn’t from really trying to play.
“And they’re mistakes you really get annoyed about when you look at it as a group, when you look back at the chances you had and because you played within yourself and didn’t try to play with a little bit of width after that first quarter.
“Those are the mistakes that frustrate you as a group whereas (on Thursday) there was plenty of intent to try to play and look, it just got very, very difficult handling-wise.
“Obviously you want to hold yourself to a standard where that shouldn’t come in but ultimately it was a factor and there’s no point trying to say it isn’t.
“So for us, we’ve got to try and take the positives.”