What went wrong with Ireland (and what they can do to fix it)

By October 25, 2019 Rugby Thoughts

What went wrong with Ireland (and what they can do to fix it)
IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTERS JUST THE SAME…

Schmidt attributes Ireland’s World Cup demise to the pressure of expectation which, he says, became a “self-consuming monster”.

In the last couple of years Irish rugby has seen it all – the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows, the creamy middles.

Before the World Cup, I was convinced Joe Schmidt had a genius plan: turn in a series of poor performances in the 6 Nations then unleash the real Ireland (who had won the Grand Slam and beaten the All Blacks in Dublin only last year) on their unsuspecting opponents in the World Cup.

There was a growing anticipation towards the Quarter final – Ireland’s customary point of World Cup exit – to the point that many fans and pundits quietly believed we might just edge it against the All Blacks. *SPOILER* That didn’t happen.

It’s the hope that kills you.

Ireland’s World Cup defeat was embarrassingly emphatic. However, reports of the death of Irish rugby have been greatly exaggerated.

With the departure of Joe Schmidt, it is the end of an era of unprecedented success for Ireland. By the end of his tenure, however, it was obvious Ireland had peaked too early.

Arguably, however, the rugby infrastructure and players exist in Ireland to allow us to once again compete with the best teams in the world.

An overhaul is necessary, and it is worth reflecting on some of the things that went wrong for Ireland at this World Cup and, more importantly, what they can do to fix it.

1. Defending the Indefensible

In the sequel to the ‘Brighton Miracle’ – Japan’s dramatic win against South Africa at the last World Cup – Ireland’s ‘Shizuoka de-bagging’ at the hands of the Brave Blossoms is evidence of Ireland’s inability to adapt.

Ireland attempted to impose their rigid defensive structure on the hosts, but Japan stubbornly refused to follow the script.

Ireland like to defend the 12 channel. The Irish defensive line comes ‘up and in’, with the 13 generally coming up out of the line to funnel teams into a stacked midfield and limit the opposition’s width. That’s the theory.

Japan, however, insisted in throwing a spanner in the works. To open-up space, Japan’s first receiver would pass to an inside runner to punch holes and occupy Ireland’s back row.  They would do this a couple of times to keep Ireland guessing and splinter the Irish defence.  This, in combination with Japan’s unpredictable attack and ability to keep the ball alive, meant that Ireland’s rigid defensive structure had no chance.

South Africa had done their homework before facing Japan and deployed Faf de Klerk to follow the ball in defence and prevent the pesky inside pass from the Japanese first receiver, which he did to great effect.

In fairness to Ireland, the All Blacks were nearly impossible to defend against. The speed of their ruck ball was unbelievable. They would generally draw in defenders with three quick rucks, forcing Ireland’s defence to wrap around and then spread the ball into the wider channels. The only way to counteract this is to attempt to slow down their ruck ball which is, of course, easier said than done.

2. Dare you to move

What is the difference between Ireland’s attack now and when they were at their peak?

Movement.

With Ireland’s attack it is always blindingly obvious who the ball is going to. It’s slow, deliberate and static. Presumably, this is to remove risk. The idea is to trundle the ball up the pitch, back and forth, never going too wide and never doing anything silly. Basically, recycle the ball through endless phases to wear teams down.

This only works if, 1) players can reliably catch the ball and, 2) Ireland are actually moving forward and creating point scoring opportunities.

At their peak, Ireland would have a ‘pod’ of three runners moving, ready to receive the ball. This makes it very difficult for the opposition to anticipate what’s happening and organize their defence accordingly.

Ireland would then either give the ball to a member of the pod or shift the ball in behind the pod and spread it out to the backs. Either way, it was less predictable, conservative and, somehow, less error ridden.

Now, the pods are static, it is obvious who the ball is going to, and the opposition line up to smash the ball carrier. Clearly, against good teams this doesn’t work. Cian Healy, for example, carried the ball a grand total of 0 metres against the All Blacks. At the very least, Ireland’s pods need to move and learn to shift the point of the attack to keep the opposition guessing. Ireland have no shortage of fantastic ball carriers – they must be allowed to operate with some degree of dynamism.

In terms of Ireland’s backline, Schmidt limits the level of creativity and invention allowed. With one exception – Jonny Sexton. When Sexton is not in form, Ireland do not play well. Sadly, there is no obvious candidate to take his place (Ulster’s Michael Lowry will not be ready for a couple of years).

There is a lack of effective strike runners in the Ireland squad – players who are capable of picking a really good line and taking the ball off the first receiver at pace. Tommy Bowe in his prime, for example. Stockdale is undoubtedly talented, but he appears to be limited to attacking in the outside channels. Larmour and/or Carberry must now be given license to attack from deep and give Ireland the attacking flair they have been lacking.

3. The Rise of the Offload

The tackle rules have, and will continue to, fundamentally change the game of rugby.

For better or worse, it seems inevitable that World Rugby will limit tackles to waist-height. The way the game is refereed we are already moving in that direction.

Choke tackles – wrapping the player and the ball – and will become increasingly difficult. The type of bone-crunching tackles that feature in YouTube compilations will become a thing of the past.

Offloading will become an increasingly important core skill. Ireland have among the lowest number of offloads of any team in World Rugby and they must get used to playing the ball out of a tackle.

In contrast, Japan demonstrated that the offload can be used to unlock defences to great effect.

Schmidt picked his team based on players who would carry out his instructions to the letter. This meant there was no room for the likes of Stu McCloskey who – for all of his perceived failings – is a master of the half-break offload.

Is McCloskey Ireland’s answer at centre? No, probably not. However, Ireland will have to adapt and find players who have the necessary skill-set for the rapidly changing modern game in which the off-load will be king. With no shortage of blatant Ulster bias, I would humbly suggest that Ulster’s James Hume will fit the bill in the next couple of seasons.

4. Loyalty Over Royalty

It’s hard to argue with Schmidt’s unwavering loyalty to his trusted lieutenants. It’s a good quality in a person, but whether it’s appropriate in the ruthless world of professional sport is another question.

Schmidt sends a clear directive to his players and, understandably, he picks the ones who carry out his instructions to the letter. Indeed, this extends to selecting players who are out of form or are not entirely fit. This type of loyalty ultimately cost Ireland.

For example, Peter O’Mahoney was nowhere near his best at this tournament. The in-form Rhys Ruddock was perhaps a better option but was overlooked in favour of O’Mahoney’s ‘big-game experience’. Kilcoyne, Conway and Farrell will also feel they were not given enough of a chance.

Before Ireland faced the All-Blacks the narrative had revolved around a seasoned Irish team seeking to expose the youth and possible vulnerability of New Zealand’s young brigade of George Bridge, Anton Lienert Brown and Jack Goodhue.

“Experience is a funny thing, isn’t it?” Hansen said with a small smile after they had just dismantled Ireland.

“I’m not being disrespectful here in saying that, but Ireland’s experience was not to win. And we have the guys who actually had experience of winning. And that’s why you’ve got to be careful when you start talking about experience.”

Hansen demonstrates ruthlessness and pragmatism. For example, leaving Owen Franks at home, shifting Beauden Barrett to full-back, dropping Sonny-Bill Williams from the starting team and leaving Sam Cane out against England. There were blips for the All Blacks in this World Cup cycle as they tested their combinations. Hansen has never been afraid to get worse before getting better.

Ireland could learn from this ruthless pragmatism going forward.

5. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Schmidt did not allow much room for Ireland to play what was in front of them.

Granted, every top team has some degree of structure, even if it’s controlled chaos. However, as much as Schmidt argues that he allows room for creativity in his Ireland team, there was no evidence of this at the World Cup. World class players must be allowed to play ‘in the moment’.

There were a number of instances where Ireland faithfully carried out pre-ordained attack moves, failing to look up and see, for example, that there was oceans of space in front of them. Ireland have players who are more than capable of exploiting such opportunities.

Ireland appeared to be playing with a debilitating anxiety against New Zealand and, to some extent, Japan.

When faced with an attacking structure they hadn’t seen before, Ireland didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t adapt to the unexpected.

Ireland need to focus on developing players who are creative, adaptable and resilient. It is now Andy Farrell’s job to create this environment and encourage a new generation of confident, self-organised Ireland players, capable of adapting to what’s happening in front of them. This will take Ireland to the next level.

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