The vibes around Ireland’s World Cup adventure are not good. Defeat to Japan and the unimpressive win against Russia have given new life to the theory that this team’s peak is in the past, even as they look to the future and a bid for rugby’s summit.
The squad may be a self-contained organism as it travels down through Honshu Island and onto neighbouring Kyushu but it isn’t one completely removed from the conversations and the criticisms, whether they emanate from the press pack here or from home. It can’t be.
Players still scroll through their phones and are in touch with friends and family. The information, good and bad, is there whether they want it or not so they will know of the doubts about them and maybe even some of the schadenfreude that accompanied their defeat to the hosts.
If they are honest, though, they won’t need to look at Twitter or give in to temptation and check out how they fared on those damnable player ratings to know that there is an inconsistency to their game and a frailty to their confidence right now.
Dealing with all this isn’t easy. This is Keith Earls’ third World Cup and yet he was telling Jacob Stockdale earlier in the week about how much pressure he felt four years ago during the tournament in England. And let’s not forget that Ireland flew through the pool stages that time.
“This time around he’s saying he’s not letting that get to him he’s just going out and enjoying his rugby,” said Stockdale.
“You get really wound up about not putting in the perfect performance or not having the perfect game every week.
“That pressure can build to a point where it takes control of you, or you can just go out and enjoy your rugby and be confident in your ability. If you play to the game plan that the coaches and the leadership group have created, nine times out of ten that’s a much better way to do it.”
If that all sounds simple, then it clearly isn’t.
Rory Best spoke about the need for Ireland to do the basics better yesterday and that is a puzzle in itself.
How can a team that has been in camp together for close to four months still be in a place where it needs to nail down the basics?
The conditions are a factor. No question. Even the All Blacks have had issues with the wet ball that has been a problem in every game so far and yet, while they had 12 handling errors against Canada this week, the number of knock-ons was limited to five. Their average normally? Four.
So New Zealand have handled the humidity OK and they are old sweats when it comes to shouldering so much expectation and pressure. But all good sides apply pressure on themselves. From within. Joe Schmidt has always worked that way and his players are well accustomed to his wants.
“Whenever we’re training, Joe likes to push the intensity and really build it, which is obviously class for us as players,” said Stockdale, who played no part in Thursday’s 35-0 win against Russia.
“You get that intensity that’s almost like a match. It’s amazing how much pressure one man can put on an entire team but it’s brilliant he does that.
“Whenever you’re off he’s a bit more relaxed and you’re able to chill out a bit more, I think he gets a good balance in his coaching style.”
The question right now is if Ireland can handle the pressure brought on by their own failings. Their public utterances have been designed precisely to ease that pressure. More than a few of them have described the Japan defeat as a “blip” and Andy Farrell has referenced England in ’07, France in ’11, and South Africa in ’15 as examples of teams who have regained their feet after a fall.
Schmidt himself has labelled a quarter-final as a one-off game, all but playing down the need for pool-stage momentum on the basis that Ireland seemed to have plenty of it approaching the quarter-final against Argentina four years ago and still got stuffed.
This is all unfamiliar and more than a little disconcerting. As is the ‘nothing to see here’ line that was pedalled after the grindingly dull and at times downright poor performance against a Russian side that played with 14 men for an hour in Kobe.
Schmidt’s Ireland have always operated on the assumption that they would perform. A certain level of performance was always taken for granted but there is a whiff of staleness about them three games into this tournament, despite their declarations of positivity on and off the pitch.
Hope is the new expectation and that is all too frail.
The hope for now is that the squad can recharge its batteries over the weekend in Fukuoka with its sandy beaches and its renown for fine culinary experiences. And that the catalogue of injuries that have plagued some of their key men can abate.
Hope. And maybe pray too.