Black days ahead as Ireland battle crisis of confidence
The week of an All Blacks Test is not the time to be addressing a confidence crisis.
For the past fortnight, the most fundamental of tasks have proved to be beyond this once proficient Irish team: line-out, scrum, breakdown, handling, counter-attacking, kicking, passing have all at various moments, or sometimes in conjunction, suffered as a result of this dwindling confidence.
Of course, we're not allowed to mention the 'c' word -- unless you're Ronan O'Gara.
The latest buzzword in Camp Ireland yesterday was "anxiety". But what is anxiety if not negative energy, a direct contributor to low levels of confidence?
Ireland must break the rot this week but the challenge is enormous against a side they have, quite embarrassingly, never beaten.
"They have consistently been the best team in the world for a very long period of time now," gushed Luke Fitzgerald. "I think they have shown in the Tri Nations that they are probably the best team in the world at the moment."
Three scenarios are possible.
1 Ireland beat the All Blacks
Declan Kidney's coaching record demands respect.
Whether it is shocking the leading contenders at the U-19 World Cup more than a decade ago or reversing a troubled European campaign into a Heineken Cup-winning dénouement with Munster, Kidney has form in bucking the odds.
Should Ireland somehow re-discover the winning formula that ensured their northern hemisphere pre-eminence two seasons ago, then they could have a chance of toppling New Zealand from their pedestal.
Such an outcome would perhaps raise even more questions than answers, as Irish supporters might question just why Ireland's opening fortnight was so dismal.
Yet Leinster performed brutally for a month this season before finally clicking into gear; the players pleaded that it took a while for the new coaching staff there to bed in. Ireland do not have that excuse but some players have alluded to the transition from provincial to international duty.
At this stage of these top professionals' career, however, such a process should be painless. And quite why they are drained of confidence is mystifying.
"I didn't think there were any nerves there," countered Fitzgerald yesterday. "I think we were a little bit anxious to do well. When a team hasn't played together for a while and they come together they always want to play well.
"Maybe there's that little bit of anxiousness to do well, guys being a little over-anxious maybe.
"I think everyone is confident and I'm confident that whatever team takes the field on Saturday will be able to do a good job for us. Personally I feel very confident at the moment. Within the squad I don't think there is any sign of anyone not being confident, I think everyone is very confident."
Only by rediscovering their confidence can Ireland contemplate success. Otherwise, there is no logical basis upon which to suggest an Irish victory. "We're given no chance this week," agrees defence coach Les Kiss.
However, should such a result occur, it would at once declare Ireland's potential to compete at the cutting edge of the World Cup and the winning squad would be declared Kidney's strongest hand.
2 Ireland suffer valiant defeat
Last summer, Ireland won the second half against New Zealand with 14 men. Yet the New Plymouth shambles that had unfolded before that point was the real story.
Ireland cannot sustain another moral victory, unless it is one forged from all the qualities entirely absent from this November Series thus far -- resilience at all set-pieces, effective ruck-clearing, competent handling and developing more than just the faint rumour of coherent back-line play.
A performance of such substance, dappled with enough style to reflect that this team does indeed have an idea what type of rugby it wants to play, would help alleviate much of the self-induced anxiety that has pervaded this past fortnight.
However, one suspects that the Irish team may be more predicated upon a basis of destruction, rather than construction, with Kiss yesterday hinting at a spoiling policy.
"If you look where they scored most of their points from this summer, about 72pc of their tries came from unstructured play. So you need to play the game at a pace that doesn't suit them.
"Letting them get easy, early points makes it a tough ask so you'd like to be as effective as you can in the first 30 and 40 (minutes) to put the game in another area for them.
"And then we have to put a little more on our game.
"You know if you kick long and give them quick throw-ins, you invite a new set of issues. If you turn over the ball easily, you present them with the platforms that they like to launch from.
"You have to be pragmatic in what you try to do to, actually try to take away the opportunities that they need to run from. We need to get those stress points from where they love to hurt us from.
"They love a loose game -- quick taps, quick throws and unstructured play. That part of their play is unbelievable.
"So we need to put the game in a position in where they have to stop, start and restart and come from those areas -- rather than go from positions where they can launch with their individual brilliance."
Ireland still believe they can win with such an approach but a narrow loss with such a restrictive plan, and one perhaps indulged within a conservative team selection -- including, say, O'Gara, O'Driscoll and Hayes -- would represent minimal progress for the squad with the World Cup clock ticking.
3) Ireland get absolutely hosed
This is the nightmare scenario for Kidney and his squad.
From a position following the Grand Slam where a victory on southern hemisphere soil became the immediate aim, a humiliation at home would utterly expose any fanciful notions of Ireland challenging for World Cup honours.
Suddenly, there would be huge pressure on the coach to amplify just what game his side are trying to implement -- and why his players have suddenly lost the ability, or nerve, to follow his instructions.
And there will also be a sharper spotlight drawn to O'Gara's reflections on the team's dwindling confidence and his cutting assessment that Ireland need to be much more pragmatic in their approach to the game.
"The opinions out there are opinions," says Kiss. "They're right or wrong and it's for someone to make a judgement on.
"People perceive there are different messages coming out.
"Internally, we feel solid about certain things. We're not totally happy in terms of some performance things we need in place.
"But there's some good industry going in there and some good discussion about how we can improve.
"We're one from two and it's not where we like it to be, but it's going in the direction we want it to be."
Should Ireland implode spectacularly against the All Blacks like so often before, it will be difficult to see if a limping Ireland under Kidney can win anything in the next 12 months, never mind a World Cup.