Saturday 19 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Ireland players must find calm in chaos to keep World Cup hopes alive'


Putting pressure on: Jordan Larmour (right) and Andrew Conway are pushing hard for starting spots should Ireland reach the quarter-finals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Putting pressure on: Jordan Larmour (right) and Andrew Conway are pushing hard for starting spots should Ireland reach the quarter-finals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"Determine that today you will overcome yourself of the day before, tomorrow you will win over those of lesser skill, and later you will win over those of greater skill."

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Miyamoto Musashi,

Japanese swordsman and philosopher

Irish spirits may be flagging - here in Japan and back at home - but the players, thankfully, have an opportunity to release the valve on the pressure cooker.

International camps can get stuffy and uncomfortable even for those without a leaning towards claustrophobia. And when things aren't clicking on the field, those overbearing clouds of doubt can descend at an alarming rate.

All is not yet lost, but a lot needs to change in the next fortnight, and critically during this nine-day break, if these Irish players are to produce a World Cup knockout performance that they can be proud of.

Inspiration and clarity are within reach. Finding it is another matter altogether.

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Just over 100km south of Fukuoka, where Ireland face Samoa next weekend, lies the city of Kumamoto, where you can find the grave of one of Japan's most famous samurai warriors, Miyamoto Musashi.

Musashi dedicated his life to perfecting swordsmanship. He won his first duel aged just 13, taking down an adult samurai with a wooden sword; became known for developing an innovative double-sword fighting style; and was undefeated in 61 battles when he finally put his weapons down. The only bout he lost was to illness, in 1645.

In his latter years Musashi drifted towards the arts and Buddhism, and as his health began to deteriorate he retired to a cave where he penned 'The Book of Five Rings, The Classic Guide to Strategy', a piece of work that has become valuable for its philosophical and tactical insights long after the bygone era of sword fighting.

After their on-field struggles of the past seven days, Ireland's players could do worse than take some of Musashi's 17th-century advice on board: "In fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm."

Ireland's players have lost their way a bit and the nervous energy and anxiety has been obvious in the last two games.

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They know this tournament is the peak of a four-year cycle and they cannot allow it to pass them by. Comparisons to 2007 are unfair because this group of players don't have to look back that far to find performances they can be positive about.

Having this weekend off may be just the tonic they need, having had such an intense schedule since their Portugal training camp nearly eight weeks ago.

Delivering successive below-par performances has to be a serious concern though, particularly as there were similarities in the timing of Ireland's peaks and troughs and a repeat of the errors in handling, discipline and game management.

The on-field decision-making and problem-solving is missing, which is worrying for a group of players that should be so well-oiled by now. It is the start of their season, but so many sessions have been completed with these match scenarios in mind.

Yet over the past week we have seen the wrong option taken time and again; slowing down quick ball when we actually do generate it, and struggling to inject tempo when the opposition are sucking the life out of our recycling. This is causing the static carrying which is crippling the attack.

Struggled

Ireland have struggled to get the ball out to the 13 channel and beyond and, on the occasions they have, Garry Ringrose and the various back-three combinations Joe Schmidt has used have looked dangerous.

Ireland didn't become renowned for ball retention and phase-play building solely through one-out runners, they were also excellent at stretching defences by shifting the ball out wide at speed. It didn't always engineer a line break but it kept defences honest and on edge.

Regular referrals to Ireland's 2018 form are not to everyone's tastes but that memorable calendar year was largely scripted by the same group of players that are in Japan.

Ireland were in Melbourne for the second of their three-Test tour Down Under in June 2018 and they were fighting to keep the series alive after the first game slipped away from them 18-9 in Brisbane.

That Suncorp Stadium defeat rattled Irish confidence, ending a 12-game winning run and inflicting defeat on Schmidt's side in their first outing after clinching the Grand Slam at Twickenham.

Only 80 seconds had passed in the second Test when Kurtley Beale scythed through the Irish defence after a clever inside pass from Bernard Foley.

Ireland were 7-0 behind with two minutes on the clock and, despite losing Cian Healy and Jack McGrath to yellow cards, they found a way back to win the game 26-21 and ultimately, a week later, claim their first series success in Australia since 1979.

It wasn't a perfect performance, but it showed their ability to solve problems on the run, to think on their feet.

In the last two games Ireland's play has been laboured for the 20 minutes before and after the interval and they have lacked the clarity of mind to find their way out of the maze. It again shows the importance of Ireland's first-choice halfback pairing, and primary decision-makers, who to date have only been on the pitch together for 57 minutes in Japan, until Johnny Sexton was replaced just before the hour mark against Scotland.

Ireland cannot protect them any longer. If Schmidt's side are to have any chance in a quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa, they need to find some fluency in attack against Samoa, and that means Conor Murray and Sexton must start.

Outside of them, Garry Ringrose should get a well-deserved break. Robbie Henshaw simply has to play at this stage, and Bundee Aki could do with a big game alongside him after a disappointing showing on Thursday.

Jordan Larmour has impressed from limited game-time so I would give him a run at full-back, with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings.

Larmour is one of five players who was definitely outside Ireland's first-choice XV heading into this tournament but who could yet start a quarter-final, alongside Andrew Conway, Rhys Ruddock, Tadhg Beirne and Dave Kilcoyne.

For Samoa, however, I would play Ruddock at No 8, on the assumption that Jordi Murphy won't be fit, because CJ Stander could also do with a break and his importance has sky-rocketed since Jack Conan's departure.

I'd like to see Beirne get a run on the blindside against Samoa and, fitness-permitting, Carbery and Chris Farrell to get some essential game-time off the bench.

Heavy contact injuries are that bit more likely when you face the powerful Samoans or the other Pacific Island sides, but as a player you cannot approach these games with caution; that's when you get caught.

Samoa have had little to shout about thus far in Japan, a whitewash against Scotland and their Russia win marred by two yellow cards for high tackles, so they will be desperate to finish their tournament on a positive note.

Ireland are looking to extract something similar from the game with the hope that it will lead to bigger and better things in the knockout stages. An opportunity remains, despite the adversity.

As the wise Miyamoto Musashi once said: "Anyone can give up, it's the easiest thing in the world to do. But to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that's true strength."

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