The IRFU’s report into Ireland’s World Cup failure in Japan will not be a comfortable read for former head coach Joe Schmidt.
Delivered to the governing body’s management committee and Professional Game Board by Performance Director David Nucifora today, the review makes more than 50 recommendations he believes can better equip incoming head coach Andy Farrell ahead of the next World Cup in France in 2023.
Ireland went into the 2019 World Cup as the top-ranked team in the world and defeated Scotland 27-3 in their opening Pool A game but then suffered a shock 19-12 defeat to hosts Japan, after which the whole campaign unravelled, resulting in a chastening 46-14 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand in Tokyo.
It marked a miserable end to Schmidt’s six-and-a-half-year tenure as head coach which had brought a Grand Slam 18 months before the tournament, two historic victories over the All Blacks as well as two other Six Nations championships and a series win in Australia.
Yet without naming Schmidt during his explanation of the report to the media in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon, the main recommendations made by Nucifora make clear that coaching decisions were the main contributory factors to Ireland’s underwhelming performances.
The most striking recommendation from the review, collated from interviews with players, coaches and management team members as well as surveys with the same people after the pre-season period and again post the tournament, was that too much emphasis in preparation was focused on the opening game against Scotland at the expense of the Japan game.
Nor was there adequate support given to players and staff in dealing with the expectations on the Ireland team that rose significantly in the wake of a spectacularly successful 2018, the upshot of which was that, as Nucifora put it, “the bell curve started to drop with performances”.
The IRFU Performance Director also highlighted a need to keep improving the skill of our players while saying the Ireland team should have been better armed with the tools for success in terms of playing style, though he accepted that playing a different style of rugby to one that had proven so productive up to 2018 would not have guaranteed success.
Of the preparation issues around the disparity in weighting between the first two games, Nucifora said: “The Scotland and Japan games, our coaching approach during that time was for the lead-in to focus on the Scotland game, and everything focused on it as it was perceived to be the biggest game of the group.
“As we all know, we achieved that but we've all been asking the question, did we get it wrong in not doubling up? The six-day turnaround, how would people respond to dust themselves off after climbing the mountain to perform at the same level of enthusiasm against the home side who had nothing to lose whatsoever, and underestimated the level of intensity Japan produced for 90 minutes.”
He added: “Dropping that Japanese game, it sets a tone, sets a mood, that damaged us because there was more pressure on us in that regard to perform at the level we were able to perform at.”