Tuesday 17 October 2017

Players need to focus on historical strengths in order to avoid another unfortunate 'blip' in Six Nations campaign

Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell must not have got the memo when he used the word "blip" in a press conference earlier this week.

Ever since IRFU chief executive Philip Browne labelled Ireland's 2007 Rugby World Cup a 'blip', it felt like the noun had been slapped with a barring order from rugby vernacular in Ireland media briefings.

But Farrell dragged 'blip' (high on onomatopoeia, low on substance) in from the cold as he tiptoed around the reasons for Ireland's defeat to Scotland: "This has got to be a blip for us and [we have to] get back on the horse again because the reality is there's a Championship to be won."

Because Farrell said he didn't want to go deep into the exact reasons for Ireland's display last Saturday, 'blip' was a convenience. For fans and the public, using the word 'blip' generally doesn't come with accountability, it's not part of a continuum and is the opposite of 'explaining-is-losing' which was not what we were looking for as we tried to get a grasp on the reasons for the first-half malaise in Murrayfield.

Ireland were so out of whack with the reference point they set against New Zealand in Chicago last November that the fall in standards make it imperative to find out: what the hell happened?

The real undesirable and short cut to the truth seems to be attitude. Attitude was the word which hung around in the spaces between what Farrell did say last Monday. "[I'm] more concerned about the mood at the time, of our lack of want to get back into the line and enjoy our defence," Farrell said. "We should love defending. Every time we get an opportunity to defend we should love it."

Undoubtedly, as well as on a technical level obviously, Farrell would have given it straight to the players behind-closed-doors and it probably would have gone along the same lines as what Keith Wood said on Off the Ball on Wednesday night.

"The attitude was off," the former Ireland captain said. "We have gone past the point of where everything was reliant on passion and aggression alone, at this point where Ireland are that isn't enough to win a game. But I think it is enough to lose a game if you don't have them."

One of the most impressive things about Schmidt's Ireland is there are times when they don't think like the rest of us. Who gave them a real shot when they went to Cape Town and Chicago last year?

From the corner Irish history had backed them into, Rory Best and Co came out firing in a manner that was astonishing to watch because of the brain and brawn on show.

They challenge what others call limits. But what is disappointing and frustrating is when the Ireland team appear to think like the rest of us. Well, of course they're going to get off to a winning start in Murrayfield! But the inconvenient truth is that the players can be mortal at times too, as Schmidt pointed out this week: "I don't think there's anyone who's machine-like enough to have a performance every time that is top-drawer".

The head coach denied that complacency was at play straight after the game last weekend. He reiterated it himself on Thursday: "I don't think it was apathy, I think it was anxiety at not having the full time to warm up. Players get very anxious, they get very routine-based."

Bus-gate

I think we were all ready to move on from bus-gate and the squad's late arrival to their dressing room last Saturday before it was inferred again two days ago which led to more questions about it. While the players have been denying that it was a factor, bringing it up again felt more of a diversionary route than the actual diversion we're told the Scottish outriders took the team bus on.

Thing is, we've seen the way Ireland have scrambled under pressure in defence, we've seen them thrive on opportunism, we've seen the way they can improvise with the likes of Kieran Marmion on the wing against Australia, we saw the way they responded when they went down to 13 men (for 10 minutes with Robbie Henshaw yellow-carded) in the first Test against South Africa last summer which is why the 15-minute delay and the resulting "anxiety" in performance from the squad doesn't add up.

Not least the way that the Alex Dunbar try from the lineout was allowed happen, Ireland's strengths became weakness last Saturday. Just when we thought we could deal with the hype, Ireland stopped being themselves and weren't fully plugged in.

Before the tournament, Schmidt stated that he was hopeful of targeting a top-two finish and upped the ante publicly on his players from his mid-table prediction the previous year. They didn't live up to that on opening weekend.

Whatever way you want to shake good attitude down - passion, belief, endeavour - they are great attributes that historically we feel we can always rely on with an Irish team and are the base level from which teams have operated from.

But here we have an Irish squad with the skills, fitness, intelligence and smarts to match (and beat) the best team in the world. We're in new territory but Ireland got a crash course in reality last weekend.

I expect them to be a different beast against Italy today. They'll have to be. Because we've learned that if the attitude isn't fully spot on, then we will be left with nothing but a horrible blip.

Irish Independent

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