Read Brent Pope every week in The Herald
THERE’S a line in the Scottish national anthem, ‘And sent him homeward, tae think again’ and in many ways, that’s what is facing Irish rugby. Now that the coals of the World Cup exit have been well and truly raked over, some more vigorously and personally than others, it’s time to look forward.
Sport rarely sleeps, and most of the Irish players will be back in harness for European Cup and Six Nations action before we know it.
Ireland are not the first side to be disappointed with their World Cup performance. After all, All Blacks went 24 years between their first and second World Cup wins, despite being perennial favourites.
It’s easy for people to say in retrospect that Ireland may have peaked a year too early, but we can also say that for a short period during Joe Schmidt’s reign, Ireland were kings of the world.
Players, coaches and teams do not become poor overnight. Ireland didn’t lack for pride and motivation – it is just that, for whatever reason, what used to work before stopped working.
That happens to all teams and all coaches. It’s a case of swings and roundabouts. Ireland’s losses to Japan and New Zealand are galling and I feel it too. I have also been part of this journey.
After covering my sixth World Cup over a 24-year period, I have witnessed many Irish greats come and go, so too the coaches. I have remained optimistic for the majority of that time, and despite being born in New Zealand and playing for my country, I still wanted Ireland to succeed. I always have and I always will.
Rugby is not the national sport in Ireland in the way that it is in New Zealand, South Africa and Wales. All the top-tier countries where the game is not the national sport continue to struggle to compete confidently: France, Scotland, Italy and Australia to name but a few. England are, of course, the exception. Their huge playing numbers and financial clout ensure that they will always be strong.
So for Ireland to get to a place where they are beating the best teams in Europe and around the world is some achievement.
Of course we were all disappointed, especially for a coach and captain who brought Ireland to the precipice of greatness.
Schmidt has been a revelation. From a coach who lost the first five or six matches with Leinster, and very nearly didn’t survive the media onslaught, to get to the position where he has left Ireland with a new appreciation of what it takes to win in a professional environment is incredible.
Joe Schmidt is the greatest rugby coach Ireland has had. Schmidt’s successor, Andy Farrell, comes in next and it is better for him to be building something than taking over at the top.
There is less expectation.
What I have heard about Farrell from the players is very positive. The words ‘approachable’, ‘chilled’ and ‘forward-thinking’ are to the fore.
Farrell did instigate a pretty good defensive pattern that had even the All Blacks ducking for cover a year ago, and has now called on the services of ex-England international Mike Catt to sharpen up the attack, a player unfortunately best remembered for temporarily getting in the way of Jonah Lomu in 1995.
This is a new cycle now and only talismanic captain Rory Best immediately drops out, with the rest of Ireland’s core of senior players set to, and wanting to, continue.
Farrell will not panic, nor should he. But he does have a few more long-term decisions to make, looking toward the next World Cup.
Who is the long-term captain? That might not be addressed until after the next Six Nations at least. Second row James Ryan is a definite contender over the next few years, as is centre Garry Ringrose, but that would put a lot of responsibility and expectation on such young players, especially over a bounce-back period.
In all probability it will be one of either Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony or possibly CJ Stander, given his popularity within the group and the fact that he is pretty certain to make the starting team.
There is plenty of new talent floating around the provinces, players who will hopefully be drizzled through in the next 18 months.
Ireland will also welcome back established players like Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan, the latter two being huge losses. Who knows, maybe even foreign-based players like Simon Zebo may come back into the mix.
Other Ireland-based foreign players will become nationalised, the most notable one being prolific Leinster winger James Lowe, who on present form will be snapped up by Farrell as soon as he becomes eligible.
Ireland and Farrell have a lot of the concrete already in situ. Schmidt has left them with huge self-belief, it is a case of doing some new scaffolding work and establishing the way Ireland need to play, their own distinctive brand.
That must be Farrell’s philosophy.
New Zealand and Japan have given Ireland the template of the game, it is about appreciation of space, skills, and athleticism.
Wherever Joe Schmidt and Rory Best resurface in the future, they will be appreciated for giving us some of the best memories of Irish rugby. What a run. We wish them well.
Tomorrow, I expect New Zealand to confirm that the power game is not the way forward, by moving England’s bulldozers around at pace.
South Africa to beat a brave but tired and injury-hit Wales on Sunday.
After nearly two months, we may end up with a final that was one of the very early pool matches: New Zealand v South Africa.
Rugby World Cup 2019
As the 2019 Rugby World Cup gears up for a semi-final weekend that had been mooted as a milestone for the national team, Irish eyes instead are already looking towards a changing future.