Wednesday 16 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Schmidt must rediscover his ruthless side, and so must the players'

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Rory Best was the only member of this Ireland squad to have lost a World Cup pool game before Saturday. Remarkably, the team that has never been past a quarter-final had won nine on the trot in the group stages.

Johnny Sexton's theory that defeat to the hosts could be a blessing in disguise is not convincing, nor was the decision to put forth team masseur Willie Bennett alongside CJ Stander for media duties yesterday.

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Although he's a highly popular and respected member of staff, he wasn't the man needed to represent the management in the days after a defeat that could prove fatal to their ambitions.

It is hard to be optimistic about Ireland chances of making an impact at this World Cup now, but although no team has ever lost a pool game and gone on to win a World Cup, there are a number of examples of sides bouncing back to have a good tournament despite an early setback.

Four years ago, South Africa pushed New Zealand in the semi-final despite losing to Japan, while the 2007 England team recovered from a hammering against the Springboks to almost halt the same opposition in the final.

Assuming they emerge from Pool A - two bonus-point wins will suffice - they'll face New Zealand or South Africa in the last eight.

The form guide says their run ends there.

Joe Schmidt has 160 minutes to find his best team and establish a game-plan. His players must decide if they are slaves to the system or empowered leaders capable of winning a game when the plan runs aground.

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Things look bleak in the wake of the 19-12 loss at the Ecopa Stadium, but Ireland have a short window to come up with solutions on the back of four years of preparation.

Schmidt will have to home in on a small number of workable solutions to turn the ship around.

1 - Pick Sexton and pray

What was abundantly clear last Saturday was that even with close to a first-choice pack and Conor Murray in the team, Ireland rely on Sexton for direction and leadership.

Jack Carty had some good moments before fading, while Joey Carbery will benefit from the hit-out but if this team are to achieve anything in Japan they will need their talisman.

He is carrying an upper-leg problem and has been unable to kick at 100 per cent; every time he takes the field there is a concern for his welfare but the calm he brings to those around him is essential against the top teams.

Already in all-time-great territory, the nation's hopes rest on the 2018 World Player of the Year's ability to get on the pitch in the next couple of weeks. Without him, Ireland's hopes of achieving anything diminish to an alarming degree.

2 - Pick on form, not past performance

Schmidt showed a ruthless side when he ditched Devin Toner on the eve of the tournament and he must remain true to that spirit in the next two weeks.

His captain and vice-captain were two of Ireland's worst performers in Shizuoka and, while Rory Best enjoyed a fine performance against Scotland, he melted under Japanese pressure.

He'll be freshened up ahead of the quarter-final, but can Ireland go into a quarter-final against Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick or Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit with their lineout thrower suffering the yips?

Best remains the skipper, but if Seán Cronin or Niall Scannell step up in the coming weeks, they must be considered viable options.

Likewise, Rhys Ruddock and Tadhg Beirne look in formidable form and should be real rivals to O'Mahony who looked below his best last weekend and gets a chance to redeem himself.

3 - Allow the players to take ownership

Schmidt says it's a player-led environment, but that's at odds with the noises from the camp who report a top-down approach from the head coach. Frequently, the players have displayed an inability to think on their feet during games, especially without Sexton to guide them.

It is late in the day to change tack, but against Russia and Samoa there should be an emphasis on Ireland being able to break structure and play some heads-up rugby so that they can break their opponents down.

These Ireland players are more skilful than they showed themselves to be against Japan, but their play is often one-paced and formulaic and opponents are able to shut them down.

As they step up in class in the weeks to come, that approach will stifle them.

And they must also realise that, while the coach is the man in command, this may be their best and only shot at succeeding at this tournament.

4 - If something works, stick to it

No one wants to be predictable, but if something's working why not stick with it? On Saturday, Jack Carty's cross-kicks were working a treat but, after he found Keith Earls on the edge of his own 22 in a fine breakout move, he stopped pushing the envelope.

Conor Murray too kept his box-kicking to a minimum when it had worked so well against the Scots. Ireland didn't play to their strengths in the air.

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