Frustrated, inconsistent and more susceptible to upsets than their top-tier rivals.
Rory Best has admitted it did not take much for his Ireland team to fall below the performance levels that saw them named World Rugby’s team of the year just 11 months ago, but the veteran captain is determined to get his squad back on track, starting with a weekend of craic and camaraderie as far away from rugby as is possible in the midst of a World Cup campaign.
Ireland were back on the Bullet Train yesterday as they pulled out of Kobe following a bonus-point victory over Pool A minnows Russia on Thursday which, while keeping Joe Schmidt’s team on course for the quarter-finals, did little to persuade those outside the camp that they can mount a sufficient challenge to their last-eight opponents, be it New Zealand or South Africa.
Travelling further west to Fukuoka ahead of next Saturday’s fixture against Samoa, they put behind them three games in a 12-day spell and will take a weekend off to ready themselves for a week of hard work which they hope can provide a platform for a momentum-giving final pool match that in turn will springboard into the step up in class required to beat whichever of the All Blacks or Springboks the fates deliver.
Best was not part of the Russian win, which saw a much-changed Ireland side get back to winning ways with five tries and none conceded despite a performance that also delivered 18 handling errors in the humidity of a closed-roof arena and a concerning spell of 27 minutes without scoring a point before Andrew Conway grabbed the fourth-try bonus point just after the hour.
Yet he admitted there was little escaping the fact that Ireland have been rocked back on their heels after the shock defeat to Japan in Shizuoka last Saturday and the performance against Russia reflected that.
After the team that carried all before them in 2018 with a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia and November victories over Argentina and the All Blacks, 2019 has been a year of inconsistency with Six Nations losses to England and Wales, a summer trouncing by the English again, and now last week’s 19-12 loss to the fleeter-footed, sharper-skilled Japanese.
So what has been the difference? Best, 37, is at a loss to explain it.
“I suppose if we knew that you’d like to think it wouldn’t happen,” the skipper said. “I think that there have been times when we have allowed mistake upon mistake and I think after the England game we said: ‘Right, enough’s enough.’ We thought after the England game in the Six Nations that that would be it but we allowed it to kind of drift into the rest of that Championship.
“I think when we came in for the start of pre-season we thought it would be right and that England game (on August 24) was a real eye-opener for us and I think, by and large, we started to get that. And then, against Japan, we just allowed that to happen again.
“You can’t do anything about that result now. What you can do now is go, and Johnny (Sexton) has said it already, is that the blip for Ireland over the last number of years has happened in quarter-finals and you don’t get another go at that.
“We are still fortunate in the position we left ourselves in after the Scotland game and getting the (losing) bonus point against Japan, that even post-Japan it was 100 per cent in our hands for qualification.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted to qualify but we’ve kind of breezed through groups before, certainly in the two previous World Cups I’ve been involved in and ultimately it matters nothing in the quarter-finals.
“So we’ve got to be better at rectifying mistakes. The key one for me was against Scotland (Ireland’s 27-3 pool win) when they kicked the ball downfield and Jacob (Stockdale) misfielded and the ball went into touch in our 22. You could see Scotland getting buoyed by it and what, maybe 30, 60 seconds later we had a scrum five under their posts which we ultimately scored off. If you want an example of when we are at our best and when we win the next moment in a game, I think that was a real prime example of it.”
Japan, however, showed Best only six days later what the outcome can be if Ireland slip off by even a couple of percentage points. Other elite teams like England, Wales or the All Blacks and Boks can work their way out of such a hole and still come out on top but not, Best conceded, his own team.
“On 65 minutes (against Japan) we had that lineout, we were on their line and had we scored there and narrowly won the game, does it change the way you feel about the game? It shouldn’t but it does.
“Are we more susceptible? I think that we possibly are. We’re under no illusions that genetically as a country we don’t have that many freaks. We have a lot of very, very talented rugby players but ultimately whenever we’re not quite right I think there’s no point in us talking about our strength as a collective and doing our basics well and working for each other.
“Whenever you don’t quite get that and you’re relying on individual talent, we have a lot of individual talent but at the same time, we also know our strength is our collective and when that doesn’t function and you fall off by a couple of per cent you’re going to be susceptible.
“We were under no illusions as to how good Japan were, but also how frustrated we are to have lost that game.”
So what happens next? How do Ireland hit the reset button midway through a World Cup? For once, the schedule may be Best’s and head coach Schmidt’s friend as their squad is afforded the unusual event that is a mid-tournament weekend off. The captain is determined the time should be used wisely.
“You very rarely get this opportunity in a World Cup,” Best said. “Certainly in the last two you didn’t really get this kind of ‘right, let’s go away and take 48 hours. Go and enjoy each other’s company, have a bit of craic, enjoy being at a World Cup’ and we can still come in a do a normal match week.
“There’s a lot of focus outside of here on mistakes that we’re making, but rugby and in sport in general, a week is a long time as we found out from Scotland to Japan.
“But, there are a lot of positives to what we’re doing. Ultimately, you’re at a World Cup and very rarely do you get a second go at a bad performance in a World Cup.
“We’ve got that now and we have to seize that opportunity.
“It’s not a case of we have to try this or that, we know and we’ve been in a set-up that has proven time and time again over the years that it works and I think we all have no issue buying into that.”