Monday 14 October 2019

Alison Miller: 'Joe Schmidt's men playing with fear instead of freedom - that must change fast'

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony in action against Russia during the Rugby World Cup Pool A clash at the Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe, Japan . Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Naden
Ireland's Peter O'Mahony in action against Russia during the Rugby World Cup Pool A clash at the Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe, Japan . Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Naden

Alison Miller

At times it feels like the ending to this story has already been written, and little we saw yesterday will have changed the minds of the cynics.

Is this team now headed not just for a defeat, but a comprehensive one, when they come up against a heavyweight in the quarter-final?

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Right now it seems that way. Thursday's performance was one that worried me for many reasons.

Russia are a side that a Connacht team fairly played off the park in a pre-season game. To struggle at times the way we did, this was not the type of performance that would excite anyone watching through a green-tinted lens.

Yes, the conditions were difficult but that cannot excuse the number of handling errors and breakdown turnovers that we conceded.

A major concern was how Ireland failed to take their chances in the Russian 22. The lack of conviction and lack of execution is alarming considering the calibre of the team that they were facing.

This was the lowest-ranked team of the tournament, and let’s call a spade a spade – Samoa are better than Russia. Right now I can feel the sense of desperation and lack of confidence.

In the last two games Ireland started well and yesterday was no exception. However, they don’t seem capable of building on this and they failed to take advantage of Russia’s 14-man situation. During this period Ireland should have dominated.

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We had some good passages of play but too often we were turned over or knocked on. Is this a lack of respect for the opposition or is it due to Ireland’s confidence being shot?

From my experience, a lack of confidence can manifest itself in the most simple way, such as handling errors. That self-doubt can infect the entire team.

During our dismal 2017 World Cup, I witnessed some fantastic players suffer with handling errors. I believe the reason was self-doubt. When it creeps in, it can be so hard to get rid of.

In the summer of 2017 we had a very disrupted and erratic preparation that left players unsure about a lot of things and it manifested on the field.

I can’t speak for the preparation levels of Joe Schmidt’s squad, but I am sure in a professional outfit like theirs it was excellent.

Self-doubt is a big drainer of energy and I really believe this could be why the team has looked so out on their feet during games.

With a huge management structure that includes strength and conditioning coaches, there is no way this team is unprepared. However, the attritional game we play is so draining and that can play a part, not only in this World Cup, but even carried over from the Six Nations.

It’s concerning that there doesn’t look to be much in Joe Schmidt’s playbook when the multi-phase game that most teams have now figured out isn’t working.

Ireland's Sean Cronin in action against Russia's Dmitry Perov
Ireland's Sean Cronin in action against Russia's Dmitry Perov

Yes, there were some decent passages of play but we look clueless in attack.

At times we’re trying to play an offload game that looks so uncomfortable. We just don’t seem to be able to exploit them like good teams do.

Is it that players don’t spot them? Or are they so confined to the Joe Schmidt structure that they aren’t looking for them?

Highly skilful players are not trusting their instincts and seem to be following the plan to the letter.

Joe is known for his high level of detail and I wonder are players afraid to make mistakes for fear of the video analysis session.

If Joe wants improvement he might need to loosen up on being so structured and get some width on our channels. Our forwards are attacking so we can get the opposition on the back foot, but the close-in tight channels is not working.

If we can move the opposition around, we can get some of our fast men against some forwards on the edges of defensive lines.

Right now they have no flow. They seem stuck and confused and seem burdened by trying to get back to where they were in 2018.

That just seems to be adding to their mental exhaustion.

Now is the time to throw off the shackles and play. If they continue like this, there’s no doubt what will happen.

We’ve seen the ending to this story before and the way we’re going, it’s not a good one.

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