57-15, Christ, what a beating! A record loss to England. Our worst EVER against the auld enemy! Not exactly an ideal confidence builder ahead of the World Cup. The Italian game was also an unimpressive and patchy display. Another poor performance on Saturday in Cardiff and the doubts will start to creep into the minds of the players.
There is disturbing echo’s of our disastrous preparation for the 2007 World Cup in France. Only a late (and dubious) Ronan O’Gara try saved us from a warm-up defeat against Italy in Belfast. After that infamous ’07 World Cup some players spoke of overtraining in the run-up to the tournament and having ‘leaden legs’ in our narrow pool stage wins over Namibia and Georgia. The side went on to suffer our first ever pool stage exit after defeats against France and Argentina.
Are we getting a bit overdramatic about what could be a freak result? Warm-up games are often meaningless. They merely serve to bring a team up to full fitness prior to a tournament. Players are often ‘minding themselves’ and holding something back for bigger battles that lie ahead. Results in warm-up games in the past have not necessarily been an omen of how a team will perform when it matters.
In the run-up to that 2007 tournament in France, England beat Wales 62-5 at Twickenham, before losing 15-21 to France at the same venue a week later. While Jake White’s South African side that won the tournament hammered Namibia 105-13 on the 15th August. A week later they strugged to beat Connacht at the Sportsground. A late Jacques Cronje try put a gloss on the 3-18 scoreline, in a game where Connacht held their own for long spells without getting over the line. White’s South African side weren’t fancied by the critical rugby media back home in the rainbow nation after that game and prior to the 2007 tournament, so the ‘experts’ don’t always get it right.
After our poor form in this years Six Nations and our first two World Cup warm-up games there is a worrying sense of Deja Vú in relation to that 2007 World Cup. Many commentators have already written off Ireland’s chances in this year’s tournament, while others suggest our current form is only a temporary blip. So in the interest of balance, I’ve put forward five reasons to be fearful and five reasons to be cheerful ahead of our trip to the land of the rising sun.
Reasons to be Fearful
- The form of key players. Rory Best will have nightmares about some of his lineout throws, similarly, Iain Henderson and Jean Kleyn won’t want to see their combined lift & jump efforts against Mario Itoje or George Kruis again in a hurry. Two bad lineout malfunctions led directly to 14 points, the second of which was thrown by Best’s replacement Sean Cronin and 7 turnovers to England in the lineout was a pitiful statistic.
- Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbury’s importance to the team as our first and second choice out-halves were highlighted by the lack of creativity from our third and fourth choice options. Ross Byrne wasn’t a complete disaster and while Conor Murray was on the field he did ok, but once Murray was replaced by Luke McGrath our ability to tactically move England around the field seemed to disappear. By the time Jack Carty replaced Byrne Ireland were already a beaten docket, but Carty’s appearance failed to alter our tempo or direction of play. With Sexton and Carbury unlikely to be available this Saturday both Carty and Byrne are likely to get game time against the Welsh, but neither would inspire as much belief as seeing a fully fit Sexton or Carbery in the ten jersey.
- Injuries – Key players such as Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbury were forced to sit out last weekends game due to various injuries not to mention Dan Leavy’s horrific knee injury sustained in Leinster’s quarter final win over Ulster in April and Sean O’Brien who had a reoccurrence of a hip injury has weakened Joe Schmidt’s hand as he prepares for his swansong in Japan.
- Fitness – After the half hour mark in the heat of Twickenham things started to go badly wrong. When Manu Tuilagi added a third English try before the break the English lead was out to 22-10 and the game was already starting to get away from Ireland, but the rest of the game made painful watching as a tired-looking Irish side were outscored five tries to one in a depressing second half display. Can Ireland get up to speed before the Scotland game on 22nd September? Why are England so far ahead of us in their training plan, should Ireland have started their warm-up games three weeks ago like the English and Welsh sides? Only time will tell if the squads recent trip to Portugal was ill-advised.
- The age profile of the side is a worry. Key players such as captain Rory Best (37), prop Cian Healy (31), lock Devin Toner (33), full-back Rob Kearney (33) and out-half Johnny Sexton (34) are all the wrong side of thirty and some would say past their prime. Can we build our team around a side of who lack the youthful energy of our opponents. The English side that looked so impressive while dismattling Ireland on Saturday had an average age of 25. Steve Hansen, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to win a world cup, has jettisoned 108 times capped All-Black Owen Franks from his 31 man squad for Japan in favour of younger more multi-faceted props.
Reasons to be cheerful
- Ireland’s training plan schedule, especially off the back of a high intensity training week in Portugal, means that we are a few weeks behind last weekends opponents. England had played two tough matches home & away to the Welsh before facing the Irish last Saturday at Twickenham. Joe Schmidt’s side had only played one warm-up game against Italy a fortnight ago and only three of the starting 15 at Twickenham (Jean Kleyn, Garry Ringrose & Jordan Larmour) had started against Italy. For twelve of the squad it was their first outing this summer. We need to trust that Joe and his coaches have a well timed training plan which will see us peak just in time for the Scotland game in Tokyo.
- Wales boss Warren Gatland has spoken about rotating his squad ahead of this weekends game in Cardiff. Ireland have a better chance of picking up a confidence boosting win against a second string Welsh side than they would against a full-strength side that kept England try-less in their 13-6 in the Principality Stadium two weeks ago. Wins build and restore confidence, Ireland badly need a performance and a win before we depart for Japan.
- We’ve yet to see our best 15 players on the pitch. Injuries to key players as listed in point 3 above, has prevented Joe from fielding Irelands best side as of yet. This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, if we progress from our group, key players such as Sexton, Henshaw, Earls and Carbery will have been well rested in the build-up and could hit form at just the right time to clinch our first ever semi-final place.
- If you dissect that performance in Twickenham many of the errors we saw are fixable before the main event. The line-out malfunctions were as much down to an untested pairing of jumpers as to poor throwing from Rory Best and later Seán Cronin. The coaches will undoubtedly focus on our jumping and calling in this key area before the Welsh game, also expect James Ryan and Devin Toner to vastly improve our competitiveness in the lineout. The loss of Conor Murray was a huge blow against England last weekend, we led 10-8 before his 28th minute injury and his experience was badly missed once he departed as Luke McGrath failed to exert the same control over the game as Murray’s replacement.
- ‘In Joe we trust’, this has become something of a mantra for Irish fans over firstly with Leinster, then after he took over as Irish coach in 2013. During that time Ireland have enjoyed their best ever run of results in International rugby. Two Six Nations titles in 2014 &2015 were followed by our first ever win over the All-Black, a scintillating 40-29 victory in Chicago in November 2016. It got even better in 2018, when we saw Ireland seal a Grand Slam at Twickenham on Paddy’s day and followed that up with our first series win in Australia in 39 years and November saw another win over the current world champions, this time at the Aviva. That sequence of results saw us rise to 2nd in the World Rankings and we were being talked up as potential challengers for the Webb Ellis trophy. Has this year’s sequence of results been a temporary loss of form? or has it all a cunning ruse as Joe prepares to unleash a new game plan in Japan in a months time?