Defeats leave bitter taste but Ireland have plenty to build on
Published 08/09/2015 | 02:30
Fifteen weeks of training, four matches, two wins, two defeats. Thirty-one players selected and just 10 days to go to the World Cup kick-off.
The big question is where do Ireland stand after a confusing series of warm-up games?
Well, from a position of second in the World Rugby rankings two weeks ago, yesterday they were downgraded to sixth, while, compared to England on Saturday, they looked a step off the pace. The same went for Wales seven days before, even if the issues Joe Schmidt is working to correct looked slightly different.
Earlier, teams picked from the wider panel destroyed a poor Wales side and mixed the good with the bad against Scotland.
Tommy O'Donnell would rightly disagree, but the squad's injury profile is better than hoped after four Test matches in five weeks. A look at the blows Wales have suffered only emphasises that point.
Performance levels are a worry, with familiar concerns about the attack and fresh worries about the defence after missing 26 tackles at Twickenham.
The mitigating factor for the New Zealander is that his team are on a very different readiness curve than both Stuart Lancaster and Warren Gatland's men.
They will also point to the fact that, despite never fully hitting or their stride or showing even the slightest glimpse of their full hand, they were a last-gasp video referee decision away from beating Wales and worked their way back to two points behind England before injury forced them into deploying a makeshift backline as they chased victory.
Ireland's next two opponents, Canada and Romania, lost to Fiji and Tonga in their final warm-up games last weekend, while their third - Italy - lost all three of their warm-up games; twice to Scotland and once to Wales.
Ireland's final pool game against France is still more than a month away and it has been interesting to watch Les Bleus warm up with an indifferent display against Scotland last Saturday.
That narrow win has brought with it an onslaught of criticism in the French media with the 2011 finalists struggling to put together a coherent attack and relying on the remarkable size of their forward pack to bully opponents.
They have to raise their game to take on the Italians on opening weekend, but that should be comfortable enough for even the most eccentric of French teams.
A pre-World Cup wobble conjures up memories of 2007, but the comparison appears tenuous at this stage.
However, a look at the history books or a brief consultation with Paul O'Connell and Rory Best would point Schmidt's way to the pitfalls of that disastrous tournament.
Since his Leinster days, the coach has always been a form picker and will have spent the past 48 hours consuming game-tape in order to establish his pecking order for the big days ahead.
Iain Henderson (below) and Dave Kearney are the two banging down the proverbial door to demand attention, with Devin Toner and Tommy Bowe in danger of missing out.
Donnacha Ryan's excellent cameo in London puts extra pressure on the second-rows, while Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald will all be pushing to take advantage of Bowe's woes.
While Ireland have not hit their peak, they can draw comfort from the strength of their set-piece.
Mike Ross has been a rock in each game he's played and the scrum has been a source of strength, with Rory Best taking two English put-ins against the head last weekend.
While the lineout hasn't been perfect, they have been able to work out any issues during the game and have scored from touch in each of their last two games.
That stability offers Ireland the platfrom to build from and it is their work at the breakdown that demands their focus in the weeks to come.
Few teams rely on quick ruck ball as much as the Six Nations champions who appear to prefer to get to deck rather than keep the ball alive like some of their rivals.
It's a low-risk approach when they are able to blow their opponents off the ball regularly, but England and Wales both managed to slow Ireland down and that led to defensive pressure and Irish mistakes.
The beauty of that problem is that it is relatively easily fixed and one imagines the work has already begun at Carton House.
There was a hope that Ireland might develop an offloading game given their time together, but Schmidt appears to have chosen not to go down that route, with the focus instead on quick recycling, rugby league-style screen attacks and a probing kicking game.
Although their display was below par against England, there were signs of attacking life at Twickenham, particularly in the moments before Paul O'Connell's try. There is much to do, but there is also plenty to build on.