Ireland’s fortunes hit their lowest ebb in many years in Cardiff. It wasn’t just the result but the manner of it that set alarm bells ringing. Can Joe Schmidt turn things around ahead of the World Cup in September?
Thank God it’s over! This year’s Six Nations tournament was a hard watch by any standards. Sure, we got a bit of light relief at the end with the England-Scotland game, but that did little to lighten the sombre mood that pervaded the nation following the dreadful performance in Cardiff a couple of hours earlier.
Ireland appeared to have turned a corner with the win over France on March 10th. Following a couple of indifferent performances, suddenly much of the old fluidity, physicality and style was back. Sadly, it turned out to be a false dawn as Cardiff brought us firmly back down to earth on Saturday as Wales clinched the grand slam against an Irish side that seemed lumbering, pedestrian and one-dimensional, with only Jordan Larmour’s last-minute try saving them the embarrassment of remaining scoreless in a test match for the first time in nearly seven years.
It was another bad day for our half-back pairing, but they weren’t the only ones as so many Irish players struggled to master the rainy conditions and impose themselves on an opposition who were on top from the moment George North bundled Jacob Stockdale into touch from Gareth Anscombe’s kick-off. It signalled the home side’s intent as they closed in on a first clean sweep since 2013 with Hadleigh Parkes' try just 70 seconds in.
Ireland’s cause wasn’t helped by some harsh penalty decisions from Australian referee Angus Gardner which allowed Anscombe some soft points on a day when, with the rain bucketing down though the open stadium roof, scores would be at a premium. The officiating was undoubtedly poor, but to blame the defeat solely on that would be to miss the point entirely. Several big names went missing and there must be more than one or two once nailed on certainties for World Cup selection who will be looking nervously over their shoulders this week. Best, Stander, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Stockdale, to name but a few, were way below the high standards that they themselves have previously set as Wales dominated the collisions – aided in no small way by some crafty Welsh hands on the floor and Schmidt’s penchant for under-populating the breakdown.
Much has been made of Ireland’s insistence that the roof of the stadium be left open for the game. Unfortunately it rained heavily throughout the 80 minutes which made handling difficult and reduced the opportunity to play open rugby. However, it was the same for both sides and Wales simply dealt with the conditions better than Ireland did – as the unforced error count clearly showed. Overall, it was a very poor performance and there’s just no way of disguising or excusing it.
Where to now?
So, that’s the post mortem on a very forgettable day. But what of the bigger picture? Surely Ireland have not become a bad side overnight, despite what so many of the critics are gleefully suggesting? It’s barely four months since we comprehensively defeated the All Blacks and were hailed as genuine contenders for the World Cup. What has changed and what needs to happen to put things right?
Confidence and self-belief play a crucial role in all sports – from once-a-month amateur to elite professional. Players are taught to visualise success from the smallest process on upwards to an entire game plan. This is a team drained of confidence. The opening day defeat to England seems to have knocked them off their stride and they are in dire need of a serious shot of self-belief. Collectively, that can only come in the pre-World Cup warm-up games which means they still have a couple of months to mull over what has just happened.
It’s hard to know if that is a good or a bad thing, but it does give Schmidt, one of the best coaches on the planet and a proven problem-solver, the opportunity to address some of the main issues. Should we compete more at the breakdown? Do we have an alternative to the box kick? I am sure that Schmidt and his coaching team will be looking at all these issues and more to see where things can be improved. Perhaps we need some new blood? Opposition teams seem to have discovered how to stop us playing and we need to come up with some alternatives. There is no better qualified coach in the world for this job than Schmidt so, like he said himself after the game in Cardiff, we need to keep the faith.
At the end of the day, the manner of the defeat in Cardiff was what hurt most. It was the final coup-de-grace at the end of what had already been a pretty dismal tournament for Ireland. However much it hurts right now though, it is better that it happened now rather than at the World Cup. It may actually prove beneficial in the long run as it has taken some of the pressure off the team. It has helped to lower expectations to a more reasonable level as, much like the hysterical nature of some of the criticism the team have had to endure over the past six weeks or so, things were getting a bit out of hand.
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