Saturday 22 July 2017

Tony Ward: Success is measured by World Cup performances, not Six Nations titles

Robbie Henshaw challenges with Pablo Matera for the ball during Ireland’s defeat
Robbie Henshaw challenges with Pablo Matera for the ball during Ireland’s defeat
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I doubt we will ever have a better opportunity to go where no Irish side has gone at a World Cup, and having missed out, we need to do some serious soul-searching about our approach to the game.

We are a small rugby nation, and the loss of players of the experience, calibre and influence of Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien cannot easily be dismissed.

So beating Argentina was always set to be an uphill battle, but in turning up in our 'against Italy' mode as opposed to our 'against France' mode, we turned that incline into a mountain.

Ahead of Sunday's quarter-final I believed it to be 50-50. If we'd had O'Connell, O'Mahony and O'Brien in situ I believe we could have strangled them.

Instead, the better team, playing a brand of rugby more appropriate to the World Cup, won in the end every bit as convincingly as the 43-20 scoreline suggests.

For Joe Schmidt, for Irish rugby and for the extraordinary support the game has enjoyed over the past month, it represented a very hollow ending indeed.

Talented

We saw what Schmidt can do with a talented backline when he first took over at Leinster. Equally, when it comes to cutting his cloth and still striking that winning formula, the last two seasons with Ireland speak for themselves.

We all basked in that success, but those tactics were never going to enough to beat the best of the southern hemisphere at a World Cup.

That's the real message from Sunday's reality check. We are as good as, if not better than, any of the other Six Nations sides when it comes to playing percentage rugby, and yes we can come out on top in the occasional autumn international, but that approach is nowhere near enough to win a World Cup.

We never had a snowball's hope in hell - even with the three O's - of beating New Zealand. The objective was to reach the World Cup final, and that would have been some achievement for a nation that has never got beyond the last eight.

But the French shoot-out took a heavy toll and once our limited pick-and-drive, kick-and-chase strategy was missing key personnel, we were always going to be stretched, literally and metaphorically, by far more ambitious, attack-minded opposition.

No doubt knives will be out for Schmidt and his management team, but given our limited resources, what he, Les Kiss and Simon Easterby have achieved has been remarkable by northern hemisphere standards. Unfortunately, when it comes to winning a World Cup it is southern, not northern, standards that apply.

On Saturday morning I watched a couple of ITM games televised from New Zealand. The ITM is the Kiwis' main domestic competition, featuring players not deemed good enough to make the All Blacks' World Cup squad, and the standard was extraordinary.

The rugby played in New Zealand, at all levels, is from a different planet entirely compared to Irish fare.

It is based primarily on offloading and support in numbers, both flat and from depth at pace.

It is error-ridden, but it is exciting, it puts bums on seats, it ensures that players who reach All Black level are armed with the appropriate skill-sets, and it explains why New Zealand rugby is the indisputable No 1.

So if there is one lesson we have learned from this World Cup, it is that we should try to follow the Argentina route and expand our game-plan.

As with the Pumas, who have won just two of their 21 Rugby Championship matches since their admittance in 2012, there will be no gain without pain, and if that means taking risks at the expense of a Six Nations three-in-a-row then so be it.

I would urge the IRFU to provide Schmidt with the assurance that the security of his tenure is not result-related.

With due respect to what is still the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown, success is measured by World Cup performances, not Six Nations or Rugby Championship titles won in the interim.

Argentina have struggled in the old Tri-Nations but the improvement in their rugby has been phenomenal. Their performance in opening quarter on Sunday, which decided the match, was like the All Blacks against the French the previous night.

The difference at this point in time is that the Kiwis maintain the level of intensity for longer, but the Pumas will improve in that facet.

Irish rugby needs to develop a more expansive, risk-laden strategy.

I have no doubt that we have the right coaching team to take Irish rugby forward. If they are to broaden the attacking base, they must have a guarantee from the IRFU that a few defeats will not cost them their jobs.

Route

Like everybody out there I love winning, but despite the excitement of 'Super Saturday' on the final day of this year's Six Nations, I did not enjoy the route to success. Emphatically not.

I hate this aerial bombardment and emphasis upon kick/chase and closing down space. I was brought up to believe that soccer was played to feet and rugby (for backs anyway) at attacking space.

The message from last weekend in Cardiff is clear: if New Zealand and Argentina can go back to the future then so must we. There is no other option.

Irish Independent

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