Sunday 20 October 2019

'It might only have a 10% impact, but I think it is a factor' - Is IRFU succession plan behind 2019 slump?

Head coach Joe Schmidt, left, with defence coach Andy Farrell during Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Head coach Joe Schmidt, left, with defence coach Andy Farrell during Ireland Rugby captain's run at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tony Considine

Amid all the chatter about exactly what has gone wrong with Ireland’s World Cup campaign thus far, and indeed their last year in general, there’s one topic that conversations keep returning to.

And while people can point to the heat and humidity of a Far Eastern tournament and worry about whether Super Typhoon Hagibis may change the course of the competition, another option is to trace the seeding of the storm that has threatened to engulf Irish rugby to Joe Schmidt’s long goodbye.

There’s no doubt that despite entering the competition as the number one ranked team on the planet, the results that put Ireland there can be broken down into periods, pre-announcement and post-announcement.

2018 had seen a Grand Slam before disposing of one potential quarter-final opponent in a first win on home soil against the All Blacks. That win had come 12 months after a dominant 38-3 victory over the Springboks, the second quarter-final possibility. All seemed rosy.

The post-announcement results and performances couldn’t be more different. The Six Nations reversals against England and Wales were notable for the level of domination suffered. And while two wins against Wales during the World Cup warm-up restored some degree of confidence, the scars left by a record defeat to England at Twickenham that appeared heeled in the Scotland Pool A game, seem to have been reopened since that shocking Japanese defeat.

Whether cause and effect are linked here has been a bone of contention in many bar-room debates since. And agreement was just as difficult in The Left Wing studio this week where Luke Fitzgerlad and Fergus McFadden sparred with Neil Francis on’s rugby podcast in association with Aldi.

"If I was still playing under him it wouldn't come into my psyche, to be honest," McFadden began.

"It’s been brought up a lot in the media asking why did he do it, why didn’t he say nothing until the end of the World Cup. But I don't know if you can excuse some of the underperformances so far due to that. 

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"It’s quite hard to put your finger on but I don't think the loss to Japan and the mistakes and drop in standard against Russia can be connected to that."

McFadden’s position was backed by his former team-mate at club and international level, Luke Fitzgerald, who would be asking big questions about the mentality of the Ireland squad were that to be a reason.

"You just cannot attribute poor performances to something like that. I’d be seriously concerned about people’s personalities and strength of character in the camp if that’s a reason why you weren’t playing well," Fitzgerald added.

"Like what, because you want to impress the coach? Who cares about that? You’re living your dream at the moment and this is the biggest stage.

"If you can’t be motivated to deliver on whatever the plan is? I’d be more concerned about what the plan is and the strategy rather than who’s going and who’s staying.

"This is the World Cup. Forget about all that stuff. What’s the plan, can I delver, can I get in the team, what can I do to play better, what can I do to make the team do better?

"That’s all that matters. Who’s leaving or going is great for us to talk about but it’s a load of garbage."

However, despite both McFadden and Fitzgerald drawing on their experience of playing under Schmidt to inform their views, Sunday Independent columnist and veteran of Ireland’s first three World Cups, Neil Francis, pointed to the IRFU’s succession plan as being a potential factor.    

"The fly in the ointment there is Andy Farrell is present. And he’s going to be the new coach," he concluded.

"Suddenly it’s not ‘Uno duce, una voce’. Suddenly Andy’s there.

"It might only have a small, 10% impact. But I think it is a factor, you can't discount that."

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