Wednesday 11 December 2019

Failure to evolve, performance anxiety, poor preparation and a skills deficit - IRFU outline reasons for World Cup woes

For the seventh time in nine World Cups, Ireland exited at the quarter-final stage but the players will welcome the chance to get back on the horse at club level. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
For the seventh time in nine World Cups, Ireland exited at the quarter-final stage but the players will welcome the chance to get back on the horse at club level. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland’s failure at the Rugby World Cup came down to four key factors, an IRFU review of the tournament has found.

Performance director David Nucifora carried out the assessment of the tournament and presented his findings to the union’s management committee and Professional Games Board today, before meeting members of the media this afternoon.

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The Australian has been unsparing in his findings, pointing to a failure to evolve Ireland’s style of play, an inability to cope psychologically with the mantle of being the world’s best team, a mistake in prioritising the pool game against Scotland over the Japan game six days later and a skills-deficit among the players as the reasons Ireland fell well short of their stated target of a first semi-final.

Nucifora personally interviewed all members of the coaching team and the relevant management staff, while he engaged an independent figure to interview the players.

They were all surveyed before departure and again quizzed on what had transpired after returning from Japan in a process that mirrored how they reviewed the 2015 tournament.

In conjunction with the report, the IRFU’s performance analysts reviewed the tournament as a whole to understand the global trends in the game, while there was also a medical review of the tournament.

The report contained 50 recommendations and will not be released to the public, while Nucifora cautioned against a reactionary response that would see the union shredding the good work that went on during the successful period between 2016 and 2018.

Starting with the team’s style of play which came in for public criticism after the defeat to New Zealand, Nucifora said Joe Schmidt and his coaches had assessed the risks of changing the game-plan and decided to try and get 10-15% more out of the existing plan rather than introducing a focus on off-loads and a better counter-attacking strategy.

"Should we have developed our game further?" he asked. "Potentially, yes, with the benefit of hindsight. We pay our coaches for those decisions, they’ve been good at those for a long period of time.

Former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"We could have gone down that path, but I want to be clear there’s no guarantee it would have produced a better result.

"We could have changed, but that creates a risk. That’s the decision, they have to choose a path to go with and we chose the path of let’s stick to what we do, what’s worked and get 5/10% more out of it.

"You look at what the All Blacks did to us, the world lauded their style of play. A week later, England handed it to them and they are lauded as South Africa and Wales are rubbished.

"Then, South Africa dismantled England.

"Of all the teams in the competition, you know what you’re going to get consistently is South Africa. They executed very well.

"There’s an argument on both sides around style, but should we have armed our players with more tools? I think, with benefit of hindsight, we should have.

"There’s no absolute that we’d deffo got a better result, could have been worse and turned to custard."

Nucifora believes the union need to do more to arm the players for the mental challenge of being a successful team.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora. Photo: Sportsfile

"I think that at the end of 2018 we were now the front-runners and, I’m still getting my head around this, but to be able to deal with that mentality and how you handle pressure and expectation of being the best, as we came into Six Nations and we genuinely were… the bell curve started to drop with performances," he said.

“Straight away, that created a level of anxiety. Some of it was stress, it can manifest itself in staff and players.

"Go into world’s biggest competition, we probably underestimated the level of support we needed to give staff around that area, helping them manage the expectation that was on them which came from the success they’d had.

"Players and staff, they’re all human and have other lives and stresses. To be able to manage those things, the stress and expectation of performance is a big area for us to look at and service our staff.

"Performance psychology needs to be improved, as well as health and well-being. Need to continually upgrade, upskill how we utilise those disciplines because if we continue to do well, manage to get on top, near the top we need to be able to manage it better.

"Manage expectation by supporting everyone better."

Nucifora’s report found that the management placed too much importance on the opening game and, as a result, the team underestimated the challenge of Japan.

That defeat derailed the campaign and put Schmidt’s side on track for a showdown with the All Blacks.

A desperate tackle on New Zealand’s Anton Lienert-Brown (Adam Davy/PA)

"The Scotland and Japan games were first two; our approach, the coaching approach, was for the lead-in to focus on Scotland and everything that happened was on Scotland game," he said.

"That was the biggest game; everything we worked towards was to have success in that game.

"We achieved that, but we’ve asked the question is did we get it wrong not coupling it up, with a six-day turnaround, how would people respond after climbing the mountain and still get the same level of focus and enthusiasm to perform against the home side who had nothing to lose.

"We underestimated the intensity of what Japan were able to play at for 80 minutes, that genuinely surprised us.

"Coupled with coming off Scotland, how we dealt with it, we got a few things wrong. If we had our time again, the focus would be split more evenly about how we go about it.

"Not that we’d change game-strategy to any extent, but mindset… there are learnings for us.

"Dropping (losing) that Japanese game sets a tone, a mood and leads to stress, anxiety, wanting to perform… that damaged us and there was more pressure on us to perform to the level we wanted to perform at."

Finally, Nucifora and the coaches will look to improve the skill-set of the players; not only those coming through the system but also those already operating at the highest level.

"The onus is on us to keep working on our development pathway to make sure players are as well tooled up so that they’re able to play the game in a multitude of ways," he said.

"Not just development level, but professional players. We need to extend that into a number of areas. Andy (Farrell) and coaches have started extended that into the provinces, professional players and players within the pathway."

Nucifora concluded by saying the IRFU would not throw "the baby out with the bathwater" by focusing on the structures that underpinned the success that came before the World Cup.

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