Monday 21 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Bizarre messages from Best and Henderson raise questions around Ireland's preparation'

Ireland captain Rory Best during a press conference in the Sheraton Hotel & Towers Kobe, in Kobe Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland captain Rory Best during a press conference in the Sheraton Hotel & Towers Kobe, in Kobe Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor in Fukuoka

For most of the week, Ireland have been on message and impressively so. One by one, they have come out in press conferences and given the impression they remain completely confident in their ability to make a dent on this World Cup.

There have been moments, however, to make you wonder.

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Last Friday, during a highly impressive interview at the team hotel in Kobe, before Ireland made their way to Fukuoka, captain Rory Best planted the seed that Irish rugby players are at a genetic disadvantage to some opponents in Japan.

And then, yesterday, his Ulster colleague Iain Henderson suggested they’d taken their eye off the ball in their preparations for the defeat to the host nation in Shizuoka.

Given Best suggested they thought they had the game won after 20 minutes, it smacked of a dangerous level of complacency at odds with this team’s reputation as being one of the best prepared in the world.

"Playing Scotland, both teams were trying to do a similar thing," Henderson said when asked about teams adapting better to the humid conditions.

"But, when you come up against a team that is trying to play it a bit wider; maybe if you’re not as prepared for it you won’t have the best outcome."

He went on to say that the teams who are throwing the ball around appear to be getting the most reward in Japan, but Ireland have played with lots of intent without having the accuracy to pull things off.

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Perhaps, pivoting to a more expansive game at this late stage is a stretch too far. But it’s the idea that Ireland were not prepared for what Japan threw at them that perturbs.

The Brave Blossoms are nothing if not consistent in their approach. Under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown,  they’ve committed to a wide-wide strategy with their forwards well able to win collisions and their passing game more than capable of getting the ball to the edges.

Ireland played against them twice two summers ago, winning both times, but the word from the camp was they caused enough problems to leave a lasting impression.

So, it seems unusual that an Ireland front-liner, who missed those matches because of his Lions involvement that summer, would suggest they didn’t see it coming.

As a result of that defeat, Ireland now face into their final pool match against Samoa knowing a win would likely put them in a quarter-final, but with a lot less clarity about who they might play.

If Scotland can beat Japan, even if the hosts secure a bonus point, Ireland would likely top the pool which puts them on course for a meeting with South Africa. If the Japanese win, then Schmidt’s men will be condemned to second place and a quarter-final against New Zealand.

If they weren’t able to handle Japan’s combination of high speed and high skills, you’d be worried about their capacity to take on the All Blacks.

If they are concerned about their struggles in the collision against more powerful, genetically superior teams then they’re going to struggle against South Africa.

Iain Henderson during an Ireland rugby press conference at the Grand Hyatt in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson during an Ireland rugby press conference at the Grand Hyatt in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Still, the positive noises come from behind the microphones where the reassurance comes thick and fast.

Although it will be played on a poor pitch and against a highly-charged, physical Samoa side, Saturday’s pool finale may be the perfect warm-up.

The Islanders are playing for pride, but pride is all they need. They’ve improved through the tournament and pushed Japan to the pin of their collars in Toyota last weekend.

They don’t feel like a win over Russia is just reward for their efforts and are determined to finish on a high, meaning an expected strong Irish team will have to perform.

With their powerful runners and teak-tough tacklers, Samoa will offer a proper physical test for Schmidt’s side.

Although they haven’t always been able to show it, Steve Jackson’s men have a commitment to playing with their heads up and can move the ball when needed.

Truly, Best’s comments on genetic disadvantages will ring hollow against a team with incredible physical gifts but little or no backing from their own union.

Samoa could be a real proposition at this tournament, but instead they are an entertaining side-show who can never achieve unless there are major changes at administrative level.

They will be committed, tough opponents but an Ireland defeat would be a disaster.

The quarter-final is looming large, but Samoa are a team worthy of Ireland’s full attention. There is no point looking past a game with everything riding on it.

Belief levels, we are told, remain high and the squad and management are determined to make a mark.

One more blip and it will all come crashing down. Fail to prepare and all of that.

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