There was never going to be a single reason for Ireland’s World Cup no-show, but the IRFU’s report into yet another failure at rugby’s biggest tournament will not sit well with former head coach Joe Schmidt.
The IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora yesterday delivered the comprehensive review of a campaign that ended with last month’s quarter-final trouncing by New Zealand to the governing body’s management committee and Professional Game Board and then divulged some of the 50 recommendations it made to a wider audience.
It will make for some uncomfortable reading for Schmidt and his coaches, including his successor, incoming head coach Andy Farrell, who must pick up the pieces of another Irish World Cup odyssey that failed to get past the last-eight stage and also brought about a shock pool defeat to hosts Japan.
With the perception, however, that Schmidt called all the shots during a reign from 2013 to last month that brought unprecedented success to Irish rugby, the fallout for then-defence coach Farrell will be minimal.
Nucifora, who personally interviewed all the coaches and other key management team members after the tournament for a report which also drew on surveys conducted with every player both on the eve of the tournament and at the end of Ireland’s involvement, insisted the report was not about apportioning blame. And during his 30-minute presentation to the media at the Aviva Stadium yesterday afternoon, he mentioned no names, preferring to use the “we” pronoun or refer to the coaches as a collective.
Yet the four main points he highlighted from the report had an awful lot to do with how the World Cup campaign was managed on the ground, in its preparation and execution:
- A disproportionate focus on preparation for the opening game in Pool A against Scotland at the expense of the second game, against hosts Japan just six days later
- A failure to manage increased expectations following the annus mirabilis of 2018 that led to performance anxiety and stress
- The decision to stick to with a tried and tested gameplan that brought a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia, and a home victory over the All Blacks last year rather than develop it further
- The need to continually develop player skills
So far, so bad for the man who exited stage-left for a rugby sabbatical, although that was not the way Nucifora saw it when speaking after his initial address.
“I don’t think we’re blaming anyone, this isn’t an issue of blame,” the Australian said.
I think everyone takes responsibility for decisions, it certainly isn’t about blaming Joe or any of the other coaches, or the players.
“It’s about learning what we can do better, and I think that it would be very easy, as I said at the start, and take one issue and say: ‘There’s the reason, we should have changed the way we play our game’, or ‘We should have done that.’
“But you take things out of context and it loses the importance. So there’s lots of things that go into that decision-making process and I don’t think we’re looking to blame anyone, we’re looking to get better.”
Schmidt, Nucifora said, was a candid and open interviewee during their post-tournament review.
“He was incredibly honest because, you know, even though he’s not going to be here, he’s poured his heart and soul into Irish rugby for 10 years.
“So he’s gutted by not achieving what we all wanted to achieve. Everyone is shattered by not being able to do it, but that’s the reality of sport.
He was incredibly honest about it and his only want is to try and help Andy and the next group of coaches to get better, and wants the players to get better.
Nor did Nucifora accept he himself had contributed to the “performance anxiety” he had outlined when he said back in May that anything other than progression to the semi-final would not be a successful outcome from the trip to Japan.
Asked if that placed the success of an entire four-year cycle on the outcome of one result, the performance director replied: “Well, we shouldn’t judge the whole period on one game, basically, which is a quarter-final.
“Everyone knows that there’s far more to what’s being achieved than just a quarter-loss.
“But we can’t hide from the fact that that was one of our goals. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stating that, of saying: ‘That’s what we need to do.’
“I don’t see why we should shy away from that. Why does that make people nervous?
“Like, it’s actually part of what we’re here for. In performance sport, you go out to win everything.
So whether we say or don’t say it, that’s what it’s about. So I think we just have to dust ourselves off, become a bit more robust, and get on with it, because the next one’s the same, we’ve got to get there.
Yet among the 50 recommendations for the 2019-2023 World Cup cycle that came out of interviews and surveys with players and coaches is the demand to hang on to the myriad positives that Schmidt and the IRFU have implemented in the last four years and further back, that took Ireland to the number one spot in the World Rugby rankings and brought such expectations.
Or as Nucifora put it yesterday: “Making sure the baby and the bathwater don’t get thrown out together, understanding the factors that have contributed to the success Irish rugby has had in that period.”
Where did it all go wrong for Ireland?
David Nucifora noted criticism that Ireland should have been offloading more and counter-attacking better but likened coaches to “risk assessors”.
“The strength of this team over the years has been the strength of clarity of how they play. To think we could (change) that in such a short space of time would have been difficult.
“Should we have developed our game further? Potentially yes, but I say that with the benefit of hindsight… We could have gone down that path but there’s no guarantee it would have got us a better result... We chose the path of let’s stick with what we do and try to get an extra 10 to 15 (from that).
“Should we have armed our players with more tools? In hindsight we should have but it’s easy for me to say that sitting here now... potentially it could have really turned to custard for us.”
Ireland struggled to deal with that mentality of being the frontrunners they had become at the end of 2018.
“The bell curve started to drop on us during the Six Nations with some of our performances and straight away there started to be a level of anxiety building up into the World Cup.
“We probably underestimated the level of support we needed to give players and staff around that area to manage the expectation that was on them because of the level of success they had leading into that Six Nations.
“To be able to manage the stress and expectation of performance, I really do believe it’s an important area for us to look at and service better our staff to deal with, the whole area of psychology has to be improved as well as health and well-being. It’s an area we do have to try and upgrade and upskill ourselves in.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“Not something new, something we’ve worked on for the last few years, the onus is on us to keep working on our development pathway to make sure players are able to play the game in multiple ways. That doesn’t just apply to our development pathway but also to our elite players.
“We will be a little more prescriptive in how we deliver that. The fact we have the ability to work closely between national and provincial coaches to bed things down, we don’t have to change habits over a week, it takes longer.
“Work is bedded down in the provinces, it’s not special, it has to be done year round. We need to extend that into a number of areas, extend that into the skillset of our professional players as well as the players in the pathway.”