Published: 14:54 | 22/10/19

Japan 2019: The Front Row (6)


We hoped that the run of poor form was merely an aberration or, better still, a ruse to blindside the opposition. We prayed that they had kept something back, that they had at least one more big performance in them. They didn’t. Where to now for Ireland?

It was a sad end to the World Cup campaign for the men in green. Dumped out of the competition in the quarter-finals once again with barely a whimper, looking like we had no right to be there in the first place – it’s a bitter pill for all concerned.

The most disappointing aspect of the game was that we didn’t even get to fire a shot in anger. The team didn’t do themselves justice – they will know that themselves and they will be hurting because of it. Joe Schmidt, Rory Best and the one or two other big names who may be departing the international stage for the last time didn’t get the send-off that they might have hoped for.

It was a game and a performance to forget. The All Blacks, keen not to be caught on the back foot the way they were in the defeats in Chicago and Dublin, were all business from the very first whistle, seizing the momentum and never letting go. They imposed their energy and physicality on Ireland from the start, winning all the early encounters and executing with speed and precision.

Ireland, by comparison, seemed sluggish and ham-fisted, making a series of unforced errors which handed the initiative to the All Blacks. A penalty and two early tries from Aaron Smith and suddenly Ireland had a mountain to climb that, even on one of their better days, might have been beyond them. You could see the confidence draining away.

None of the players covered themselves in glory on the day – Conor Murray’s box kicking was abject, Jonathan Sexton was unable to influence the game in any meaningful way, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw made glaring handling errors……the list goes on. It was a very bad day at the office for Ireland.

Where to now?

But like everything else in life, it’s what happens next that counts. Following six-and-a-half years of excellent service, Joe Schmidt has gone and Andy Farrell is in charge with just 14 weeks to go until Ireland’s next competitive match – a Six Nations encounter with Scotland at the Aviva. The big question is – what does he take with him and what does he leave behind?

There are some who would argue that the Schmidt experiment ultimately failed and that naming a successor from within that camp is a mistake. Like it or not, however, that decision has been made. It was the IRFU’s call and the buck stops with them on it. Last Saturday aside, Farrell has proven very successful as Ireland’s defence coach and the players obviously respond to him, so we should be able to look to the future with some degree of optimism.

Farrell will, no doubt, look to tweak some of the systems and plays that Ireland have been using over the last couple of years. The game has moved on and some of them were shown to be old hat and were easily exposed in Japan. However, it is the make-up of the new squad and who the successor to Rory Best will be that will provide the clearest indication of which direction the new regime is heading. Does the planning for France 2023 start now or should we just be looking to the short-term to let new ideas and new personnel take root.

Following the disappointment in Japan, Farrell will be desperate for a decent Six Nations which probably means he won’t go for a complete root and branch overhaul straight away. Although Best has retired, all of the other players in the squad for Japan are under IRFU contract until the end of this season at least.

However, another poor Six Nations campaign might mean things will happen faster than expected, but what is most likely is that he will slowly phase in the likes of Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Andrew Porter, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery as viable alternatives to the experience of Kearney, Earls, Sexton, Murray and others.

Although the prevailing mood right now favours a clean sweep of the ranks, in doing so Farrell could easily paint himself into a corner. Most of the younger players simply don’t have the experience and need level heads around them on the pitch to get results in big games. 

With this in mind, perhaps a shorter term view is best as, let’s not forget, the approach that began the day after the 2015 quarter-final defeat to Argentina in Cardiff four years ago saw the squad reach some very lofty peaks, but they were ultimately on a downward trajectory for almost 12 months heading into this year’s tournament.

Semi-finals

But life goes on and so does the World Cup. We’re down to the last four and who can argue that they are not the four best teams in the world today? There is no doubt that we’re in for two fascinating semi-finals. The first sees New Zealand take on England this Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 8am) in what promises to be a titanic struggle between two powerhouse teams. It’s one that would be worthy of the final in many people’s eyes.

Both sides have won all their games in the competition to date with relative ease. New Zealand were made to work a bit by South Africa in their opener but were deserved winners in the end. They will be favourites for this one, but underestimate England at your peril. They have the skill and physicality to match the All Blacks, but will it be enough? Like New Zealand England haven’t been truly tested in this tournament which makes this a fascinating clash.

It’s a tight one to call, but I’ll go with New Zealand because they have the big game smarts, a proven track record of getting results when it counts. They are hunting a third Webb Ellis in succession. The stakes couldn’t be higher which is why I believe they will prevail.

We’ve seen England struggle when unable to boss the breakdown which, given that the All Blacks are the best breakdown team in the world, is likely to be the case on Saturday. They have failed to adapt in these situations over the past year, most notably against Wales in the Six Nations, which left them looking vulnerable and a bit ordinary. You can be sure that Jones has been working on this so it will be interesting to see what answers he comes up with in what is undoubtedly the biggest game of his tenure so far.

The other semi-final is equally fascinating as Wales face South Africa in Yokohama on Sunday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 8am). Wales are the Grand Slam champions - they have looked imperious at times, but their path to the last four has not been without incident. They have struggled to impose themselves over ordinary opposition and were lucky to edge out 14-man France in the quarter-final last weekend.

But for Sebastien Vahaamina’s moment of madness just after the restart, with France leading 19-10 and looking untroubled, it would probably be Jacques Brunel’s side who would be in the semi-final on Sunday. One thing is certain, they will have to improve dramatically to get past a resurgent South African and, even if they somehow manage that, they will be destroyed by whoever they play in the final.

As for South Africa, they are looking stronger and stronger every time they play and will fancy their chances of reaching the final at least. They squeezed the life out of a Japanese side that had proven too much for both Ireland and Scotland.

Despite that, however, they were on the wrong end of quite a bit of criticism in the media for failing to get the ball out wide and convert opportunities, something which I found quite surprising and mostly unwarranted. It was a controlled display tailored to the opposition at hand. Wales will have their work cut out.

The biggest surprise of the day for me was the peculiar performance of referee Wayne Barnes who was content to let high tackles and aerial contact go unchecked. The result could have been quite different if Springbok prop Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira had received greater sanction than a yellow card for a spear tackle on Japanese counterpart Keita Inagaki in the first half. Barnes refused to even consult the TMO, immediately brandishing a yellow card when it was clearly deserving of a red. It was just another instance in a long line of inconsistent refereeing which continues to threaten the integrity of the modern game.

PRO14

Back to matters domestic now and there is a full programme of PRO14 this weekend with ALL SEVEN games from matchday four LIVE on eir sport this Friday and Saturday. This includes Munster v Ospreys at Irish Independent Park on Friday (LIVE from 7.15pm on eir sport 1), Ulster v Cheetahs (LIVE on Friday on eir sport 2 from 7.30pm), Zebre v Leinster on Saturday afternoon (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 5.10pm) and, also on Saturday, Connacht v Cheetahs (LIVE on eir sport 2 from 5.10pm).

Reigning champions Leinster and Cheetahs, who are both in Conference A, are the only two sides in either section to have maximum points from the first three rounds. Also with three wins from three, Scarlets are next best with 13 points. Meanwhile, last season’s runners-up Glasgow Warriors recorded their first win of the new campaign last time out with a narrow victory over Cardiff Blues at Scotstoun. Munster, Connacht and Ulster have each won two of their opening three games as the conferences begin to take shape.

By Kieran O’Daly

Image: INPHO

****See all the remaining RWC 2019 games LIVE on eir sport.    

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