Thursday 19 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Schmidt and IRFU fail to learn from 'lame duck' Ferguson'

Even the greatest coaches struggle to get best from their players once their departure is imminent

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has plenty to ponder as he watches his team lose at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has plenty to ponder as he watches his team lose at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's beginning to feel like Joe Schmidt made a Faustian pact with the devil at the start of 2018.

"Give us a Grand Slam, a series win over Australia and a victory over the All Blacks in Dublin and you can do what you want after." "Sure about that Joe?" "Positive, Satan." "Sound. I'll start by getting you to announce your resignation after the All Blacks match."

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It's hard to believe the win over the All Blacks which made Ireland de facto number world number one was just ten-and-a-half months ago. It seems to belong to a different era.

When Ireland were stuffed by England and Wales in the Six Nations, it was customary to comment that these were disappointing performances considering the high standards Schmidt and his team had set for themselves.

That proviso didn't need to be employed on Saturday. This was a disappointing performance full stop. It was like something from the Murray Kidd and Brian Ashton days as England overpowered Ireland in the forwards, played exhibition stuff in the backs and ran their chariot all over us. We looked like a team in terrible trouble.

It's true this was merely a World Cup warm-up game. Recovery is possible. Scotland moved from a 32-3 defeat by France to a 17-14 victory within a week. Wales bounced back from a 33-19 defeat by England to beat them 13-6. Only seven days separated the All Blacks 47-26 loss to Australia from their 36-0 win over the Wallabies. Strange things are happening out there.

The problem for Ireland is that this was the latest in a long line of disappointing displays. The pretence that the Cardiff humiliation represented an advance from that suffered against England was cast aside in the build-up to Saturday's showdown. The need for a big performance was stressed. There was talk of Test match intensity.

Instead Ireland suffered their worst defeat by English opposition since 1916 when we also flattered to deceive early on before their big guns got going.

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Saturday's team wasn't a depleted one. The starting line-up contained ten of the 15 starters from the win over the All Blacks and two players who'd come on that day. Despite suggestions that Dan Leavy is a massive game-changing loss he didn't play against New Zealand. Neither did Conor Murray.

Back then the strength of the squad seemed sufficient to absorb such losses. That's why we were considered genuine World Cup contenders. Ireland seemed to have cover in every position.

Things look different now. Take half-back, where once we seemed so well provided for. Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery are dogged by injuries and short of playing time. Murray is gripped by the most inexplicable loss of form by an Irishman since James Joyce wrote 'Finnegans Wake'. A former area of strength has become a hostage to fortune.

The struggles of Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath on Saturday showed how complacency is always punished. It seemed to matter little when John Cooney got the nod ahead of McGrath for the Australian tour and Jack Carty ahead of Byrne for the Six Nations. Weren't they down the queue anyway and wasn't it a nice sop to Ulster and Connacht?

Yet now things are getting serious Schmidt prefers to go with Byrne and McGrath only to find they've been left short of international experience. It's funny what trips you up. Losses of form bedevil us elsewhere. Jacob Stockdale, the unstoppable try machine of a year ago, has gone off the boil, his defensive frailties cruelly exposed as the team plays on the back foot. They call this the sophomore slump.

Maro Itoje suffered one last year after an all-conquering debut season and has now returned to his best. Stockdale should eventually do likewise but his travails add to the general malaise.

Rory Best looks like he's gone on for too long. His best moment at Twickenham came when Seán Cronin threw the ball straight to Luke Cowan-Dickie on the Irish line and reminded us why Schmidt doesn't trust him as a starter.

CJ Stander's current inability to make ground against quality opposition was cruelly underlined by the presence of Billy Vunipola opposite him.

Jean Kleyn, like Quinn Roux before him, probably wouldn't get a cap if he was Irish rather than South African. His elevation above Ultan Dillane, one of Ireland's very few successes in this year's Six Nations, is ludicrous

Yet the problems are not merely individual ones. There is a feeling of collective decline almost unprecedented in a top-class team over such a short period.

Called in to investigate, Sherlock Holmes might begin by asking if there had been any major change in that time. He could well detect significance in the obvious one of Schmidt declaring his impending departure nine days after the All Blacks game.

It seemed strange at the time. Why make the announcement then? Why not keep your counsel and go after the World Cup? The record of lame duck managers is not encouraging, even Alex Ferguson struggled after becoming one. Yet we shrugged all concerns aside on the basis that a man with Schmidt's record must know what he's doing.

Accession

That conclusion is more debatable now. So is the decision to immediately announce the impending accession of Andy Farrell.

At the time Farrell's record as defensive coach seemed to constitute a powerful argument for his promotion. Watching his charges miss an astounding 34 tackles on Saturday after a year when Ireland's defensive system seemed a much less impressive creation, you wondered if that summary appointment represented an act of hubris on the part of the IRFU.

Back then Irish rugby could do no wrong. Now nothing is going right. The only consolation is that pre-tournament hype is unlikely to be a problem.

Because if England have a chariot, what we have now is a tractor with one wheel falling off and slow punctures in the others. With 27 days until Ireland face Scotland, she badly needs a jump start.

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