Wednesday 16 October 2019

Alison Miller: 'The slate is wiped clean before any World Cup, so why the negativity?'

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Scotland's Stuart Hogg takes part in a training session. Photo: Getty Images
Scotland's Stuart Hogg takes part in a training session. Photo: Getty Images

Alison Miller

They say that to expect defeat is nine-tenths of the defeat itself, and if that's true then you just hope the Irish team has tuned out all the noise ahead of this World Cup.

I can't remember a build-up when there's been such doom and gloom about their chances, and in a way it's understandable - the England performance was bad, and history has taught us that over-hyping our chances is a fast-track to a collective let-down.

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But are we being too negative?

Yes, we didn't have a good Six Nations and got destroyed by England, but it seems many believe all hope has died before it's even lived.

Think back to this time last year, how we felt about this Irish side. Think back to the Champions Cup with Leinster in the final and Munster in the semi-final.

The player calibre is still there to raise this team's performance at a major competition. It's true Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray haven't been firing, but if they reignite we have the platform to build major momentum.

The loss to England was poor, but you have to see that in context. The players had been flogged hard in Portugal for nine days and it showed.

Defence was a problem but the ability to defend relies on energy and mindset. If you're fatigued, it can be hard to get up for the battle and Andy Farrell will have since rectified the defensive issues.

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England look impressive, but it's tricky to peak right for the World Cup - it relies on the perfect confluence of physical periodisation, the players' psychological and emotional well-being.

Players will always tell you they don't read the press and while that's generally true, there's no point pretending they don't get a sense of the negativity.

Even those actively trying to avoid all outside interference have to do interviews and the questions asked reflect the feeling among the public.

When I played at the World Cup I noticed a big difference between generations. Younger players were less likely to stay off social media whereas older players had little trouble blocking it out.

There has been negativity around selections, project players, and while this is a bigger issue World Rugby will have to confront, the frustration should be directed at the system, not the players.

Scotland will be tough, but if Ireland pass this test their confidence will grow exponentially. The weather could have a big impact, but Scotland will still try to play with tempo. They don't have big ball-carriers in the pack so they won't look to out-muscle Ireland.

They'll look to move the ball and play with speed. Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will pose a big threat and John Barclay's return is a boost.

Scotland have a good kicking game when it's executed accurately, but Ireland will have confidence in their ability to hold on to the ball with multi-phase play - even in bad weather. A dominant set-piece will allow them to launch their trademark power plays and Ireland's physicality should see them through.

The absence of Rob Kearney could prove significant if Scotland look to play an aerial game, and there are issues with Ireland's lineout. We'll miss Devin Toner. We seem to be slower than most teams in our set-up, it becomes too much of a contest, and it needs major improvement.

A major positive is that there were glimpses of an offload game against Wales and it would be great to see Ireland expand on this during the World Cup. The return of Joey Carbery is also a big plus - an intelligent, creative, versatile player.

I'm not one for over-hyping teams but I'm also not one for writing off their chances. Some people talk like we're weeks into the tournament and not performing, but the reality is the slate is wiped clean now. All that came before is irrelevant.

Teams have performed well in Rugby World Cups despite poor form coming in. Look at South Africa in 2015 - fourth in the Rugby Championship and they started the World Cup by losing to Japan. Yet they topped the group and lost by just two points to New Zealand in the semi-final.

Same for France in 2011 - they lost to England and Italy in the Six Nations and to Tonga in the World Cup group stages. Yet they came up one point short of winning it all. The point is that this World Cup will surprise us.

We should remember this Irish team are performing well for a nation where our playing numbers don't match up with spectator interest. The chief sports are GAA and soccer, and until we have a lot more numbers playing rugby we can consider ourselves punching above our weight.

At the same time, there's no reason to believe they can't go a long way because of recent form. With the talent in their ranks, they deserve the time, the chance, to show what they're made of.

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