Friday 18 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Ireland's players are guilty of an unforgivable dereliction of duty'

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale looks dejected after the match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Ireland's Jacob Stockdale looks dejected after the match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The only hope Ireland have of prolonging their stay in Japan is if they booked their flights home with Thomas Cook. This was a stunning reversal, fashioned by a performance of unacceptable mediocrity by a team who probably did know just how tough this assignment would be.

It was an unforgivable dereliction of duty from a team that had the winning of this match well within their compass. Ireland could not kick on from a 12-3 lead as they made amateur concessions to a team who were rather more certain of their objective than Ireland were.

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As always happens with Joe Schmidt's sides, when they win, everyone plays well; when they lose, nobody plays well. And so the root of this result is an under-performance and once again the common failings of the team were there for all to see. It is just implausible how a team that was very briefly ranked the number one side in the world cannot score for 60 minutes in a Test match. Ireland scored 12 points in the first 22 minutes and if they had managed to maintain their form and kept the scoreboard ticking over, we would not be bathing in this sea of inoperable discontent.

Ireland's physical demise was mirrored by a corresponding mental decline. The oppressive heat and humidity were a prime factor. There is no mistaking that. I said in the build-up that it was important that Schmidt picked the strongest side available to him because a large number of us may have underestimated the Japanese.

The reason I applauded Schmidt was that there would be the prospect of putting a big number on the Japanese and maintaining momentum and Ireland would therefore bounce into the quarter-finals with confidence. Ireland's position, mathematically, is not anything as bad as it would first appear, but to fulfil their destiny they would have been relying on momentum, not mathematics, to see them through, their passage underscored by a renaissance in confidence. That is now irretrievably gone.

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That said, they were dispatched by an uncompromisingly direct Japanese side to whom the ethos of teamwork is everything. They played at breakneck speed, relied on simple footballing intuition and were mentally agile and nimble throughout the 80 minutes. For Japan, there were no passengers, they were all crew.

These days the deficit in power and physical size is no longer a factor and their teamwork saw them through in vital areas of the game. Japan's scrum was very solid, a product of teamwork and concentration. Defensively they were very strong and quite often Ireland's one-out runners were met with a three-man delegation. Japan managed to get numbers into the breakdown and slowed an awful lot of Ireland's ruck ball to the point of being no value to the men in green and they kept this up for the whole match.

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As ever, the guy who gives the best post-match analysis is Joe Schmidt and the term he used for what happened at the breakdown was telling. He said "Japan effected a deep clear out," and he was absolutely right in the sense that once the Japanese runner was brought to ground the speed into the breakdown was bewildering.

The Japanese were very precise and direct in clearing Ireland's tacklers aggressively out of this phase of play. You can look at the stats all you like but they won't tell you how much faster Japan's ball from the breakdown was than Ireland's and that was the key to this game.

Japan are quick-ball junkies and if you don't stop them in this phase of play they will cut you to pieces.

Kenki Fukuoka's try down the left-hand side graphically illustrated the difference in quality of their passing. Ireland's proficiency in this part of the game has fallen off a cliff and the Japanese got their passes away in the tight corridor, with little space, and got over by the corner flag. The try was preventable but already there was a sense of weary resignation even though Ireland weren't quite out on their feet at that stage.

The question we have to ask is whether the mistakes and errors of omission were preventable. The big moments were down to such simple things: Henderson failing to collect a shortened kick-off in the 15th minute, the simple penalties at the breakdown, Conor Murray's in particular in the 31st minute was careless in the extreme as he was part of the tackle in conjunction with James Ryan and he very clearly had his right knee on the ground when he was trying to pilfer the ball. Why did he follow through?

Ireland's scrum near the Japanese 22 in the 34th minute looked like a promising attacking opportunity, two backs on the narrow blind and four in the open, but none of them would be used as Ireland looked to milk a scrum penalty. This could be done in two ways, with Murray pretending to break blind and draw the Japanese back row off their scrum. They could also choose not to do this and instead Stander just stayed in the slot and waited for Ireland's scrum to simply get into gear and drive forward. When the Japanese resisted and drove them off the ball, that was the touch paper.

On the back of that, and more stupid mistakes, Japan gained give vital oxygen and nourishment. The half-time score of 12-9 told the Japanese that this game was there for them.

Half-time was a seminal moment in this match and indeed in the World Cup. The Japanese had dominated the second quarter of the first half, Ireland had too many static runners and not enough clarity of thought to control the game or keep the ball. Schmidt, probably sensing that his team were going to struggle in the second half, changed his tactics.

Jack Carty is a handy footballer and may in time mature into a good international standard outhalf, but in the 20 minutes leading up to his eventual departure he was all over the shop and maybe given the instructions he was probably aware that he needed to keep the Japanese pressed in their own 22. But the quality of his kicking was poor and it gave the very dangerous Japanese back three the opportunity to run back at the Irish and keep the ball for another relentless series of phases.

I'm quite certain if Johnny Sexton had been playing yesterday that Ireland would have won the game. He just does not allow that type of performance to happen around him while he is on the pitch and his maturity and mental dexterity means that he takes the responsibility to put Ireland in a position of advantage, even when they are on the back foot.

We are told quite often about how well Ireland's players are able to adapt or play heads-up rugby when the game is going against them, but Ireland, when the tide was against them, were physically and mentally unable to work something to get back into the game. I'd be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there is no evidence of any thinking going on inside it.

Japan were comfortably the better side yesterday and their performance got better as the match went on. Maybe the historic occasion blinded them or they lacked the sang froid to put their opponent away completely. Quite why they did not attempt a drop goal from the scrum five metres from Ireland's posts to deny the Irish a bonus point is beyond me.

That said, with the mood that they are in they may not need it. If they beat Scotland, they qualify as the number one seed out of the group. The appalling vista of needing the Scots to do us a favour just adds to the despair of this nightmare scenario.

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