Thursday 14 November 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'After their record-breaking year, Ireland seemed to think they no longer needed to win hearts and minds'


A dejected Ireland team applaud their fans after the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
A dejected Ireland team applaud their fans after the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O’Connor

THERE is no one thing that brought about the downfall of Ireland in 2019. Although the review into the World Cup campaign will not be made public, it is likely to highlight a series of decisions and events that fed into one big non-performance against New Zealand two weeks ago.

To date, the players have been unable to shed any light on what went wrong.

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Unlike New Zealand, Ireland decided there was "no appetite" for an end-of-tournament press conference before departure and Schmidt and Peter O'Mahony did short huddles on arrival in Dublin Airport.

Despite playing in the game, O'Mahony had "no comment" to make on Ireland's loss to New Zealand because he had not yet watched it back.

Since then, the players have gone on holidays and the now former coach has kept a low profile. His successor, Andy Farrell, has remained in Japan to watch his son Owen play in the semi-final and final.

The most interesting assessments so far have come from some of Schmidt's former players. There is a growing sense that, over time, the players grew weary of Ireland's limited gameplan, that the coach kept faith with his out-of-form leaders and that team confidence was hit by the opening Six Nations defeat to England and never recovered.

In particular, it seems that the Leinster players grew to favour the attacking gameplan being implemented by their head coach Stuart Lancaster and grew frustrated by Ireland's limited approach.

Schmidt's assessment was that he and his senior players opted to look beyond the Six Nations and towards the World Cup, thus shifting their focus from the concentration on the next moment that had served him and his team so well.

Putting all their eggs in that basket was, he believes "a self-consuming monster".

Although there was a sense of optimism that week, it was based on hope rather than expectation. Ireland had been in decline for some time.

Niggles

For the quarter-final non-performance in particular, the coach spoke of unspecified niggles that had disrupted the team's preparation for the game.

In contrast, a series of players reported one of the best training weeks they'd had.

It was typical of the way things went after Ireland's losses under Schmidt. Rarely, if ever, would the coach accept that the result was down to the team's preparation or tactics. Rather, it would come down to injuries or refereeing interpretations, a leaked team in the media, a delayed bus or an individual error.

The comments on officials and post-match reports on referees undermined goodwill.

In the days after the defeat to Japan, Schmidt made it known that World Rugby had admitted to a series of mistakes by match referee Angus Gardner who ended up an assistant referee in the quarter-final match. On the pitch, some of Schmidt's main men could fall foul of referees.

Indeed, Munster's former All Black Alby Mathewson pointedly criticised Johnny Sexton's body language just before the tournament.

"He is one of the worst in terms of body language, he's a leader in the team and he's 'effing this and effing that' and your head goes. The physiological reaction in your body – like fight or flight, when you're properly rattled you can't think properly, your heart rate goes up… there's a huge side to the mental skills," he said.

"There's a couple of hits on Johnny, he's complaining to the ref – then his mind's not on the game, and other guys are looking around thinking 'what's the answer?' When you look at the All Blacks, you never see guys do that."

After their record-breaking year, Ireland seemed to think they no longer needed to win hearts and minds.

Schmidt was named Phillips Manager of the Year last December, but skipped the traditional lunch with his fellow monthly winners from other sports and planned to leave without taking questions from the waiting journalists until they managed to corner him for a question or two, as he confirmed he'd "never say never" to another job a couple of weeks after announcing his intention to "finish coaching".

That was in keeping with a media strategy that saw English journalists told "we don't need the English papers" by an IRFU official.

Such was the position of strength they found themselves in on the back of a sensational 2018.

Schmidt even made an uncharacteristic appearance in a sponsor's television ad before the Six Nations got under way. Within two minutes of the tournament kicking off, however, everything started to unravel.

England went after the Irish strengths of 2018 at the Aviva Stadium and, by beating them physically and tactically, they undermined the players' belief in the system.

All the momentum built up by that unforgettable year was lost in 80 minutes, plans to experiment were scuppered as Ireland were chasing performances and results.

Schmidt rotated his team during the tournament, but kept selecting an out-of-form half-back pairing.

"I think they are class players and class is permanent," he said after selecting them to face Italy. "Form can be temporary and coming back after not having played in a month, a player might be a bit rusty."

Throughout his time in charge, he largely remained loyal to his senior men – even if Jack McGrath and Devin Toner might take issue with that assessment.

It had an impact.

"When you choose to stick when faced with a twist or stick situation, that kind of can affect whole nature of the team's confidence and ability," former scrum-half Eoin Reddan told Second Captains.

"At different times over the year guys have played badly and have not been under pressure for their position. The problem there is that it's been the leaders, the lieutenants who haven't performed that well and held on to their position and it creates this feeling of, 'if you're in the team am I getting picked because I was picked last week or am I the best man for the job?'.

"When Dev was dropped it sent a message to everyone else that you're here on merit. But over the World Cup, picking on form is important part of the puzzle."

Botched

The decision to omit Toner and pick the newly-qualified Jean Kleyn is another curious call.

All summer, there was a sense within the squad that the popular Leinster second row, a stalwart of Schmidt's six seasons, was in trouble and when the call came it was no major surprise to those who'd been at training.

The message was delivered coldly, while a botched squad announcement meant the news appeared on independent.ie before the IRFU confirmed it.

In the end, plans to sit on the squad for a week were abandoned and the panel was named ahead of time.

Individually, these things don't seem too important, but they all add up to a chaotic build-up. Toner could count himself unlucky, he wasn't the only senior man whose form was on the wane.

The leadership group has grown increasingly tight over the years around captain Rory Best, but their age profile was on the high side.

The losses to England, the defeat to Wales and even the pool shock at the hands of Japan all gave Schmidt a chance to make changes.

He had players in good form in Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Andrew Porter and Dave Kilcoyne but none of them started the last-eight match.

Injuries didn't help. Dan Leavy and Jack Conan were big losses, Joey Carbery's ankle surgery was disruptive. He travelled, but he was never fully fit.

The injuries suffered by Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney after arriving were costly, Keith Earls travelled with a knee tendonitis problem and never looked himself. Cian Healy never looked right after limping off at Twickenham.

And yet, they all started the quarter-final and none of them played to their best.

As well as having physical issues, Ireland looked mentally frail when it came to the crunch.

As Steve Hansen said, Ireland had plenty of experience – but that experience was of losing quarter-finals.

There was a sense in Japan that things had picked up after a difficult first three weeks which saw them beat Scotland, lose to Japan and struggle against Russia.

Initial plans to leave the families at home until the knockouts were scrapped; suddenly wives, girlfriends and children began arriving in Fukuoka and the tension around the camp eased.

After an intense period, there was time to breathe. The win over Samoa was cathartic and there was a sense that they could click at just the right time as they had under Schmidt before. It was to prove another false dawn.

In the days before the game, performance coach Enda McNulty was a prominent figure around the team hotel, but the players looked short on confidence when it counted.

Against New Zealand, the players froze. They took wrong options, ran bad lines, dropped the ball and failed to protect possession.

At the most important point of the World Cup cycle, they couldn't perform and looked paralysed by fear.

In the wake of the loss, it was noticeable that both Isa Nacewa and O'Driscoll brought up the contrast between Lancaster and Schmidt's approach to attack.

Lancaster brought a freshness to Leinster and offered them a less structured, more creative way of playing and they loved it.

"The biggest strength he's brought there has been our multi-phase play," Fergus McFadden said on this week's Left Wing podcast. "Forget about the move off scrum or lineout, we might get the ball off a kick or a turnover and that's when we're at our most potent and that's because that's the way we're training.

"Ireland under Joe Schmidt didn't evolve the way they were training over the course of five, six seasons. All the emphasis was on the set-piece plays, the scrums and the lineouts and it worked for a long time.

"There's a lifetime for certain coaches getting the most out of their teams if you don't move forward or change things and I feel like he didn't.

"Joe Schmidt brought Irish rugby on to new levels... (His record) speaks for itself. But, if we are going to call it as it is, the fact of the matter is that the team didn't evolve from 2018 much and other teams did. That was our shortfall really."

Schmidt's work-rate is not in question, he poured everything he had into this campaign at a personal cost. When he spoke about being heartbroken he was being genuine.

He will learn from the experience and apply the lessons into his next job. David Nucifora's review is ongoing, he will talk to players and staff to establish what they felt went wrong in 2019.

Nothing can be sacred, every element of Ireland's preparation and performance must be on the table if they are to learn from this experience.

Otherwise, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

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