Wednesday 16 October 2019

Tony Ward: 'Ireland can come good but it's time to let wounded pride heal itself'


The creativity of Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour will be critical for Ireland to have any hope of getting past the quarter-finals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The creativity of Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour will be critical for Ireland to have any hope of getting past the quarter-finals. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Three games down and it's been extremes in emotion and performance for all concerned. We are in a dilemma and it's not pretty. I do not believe it to be 2007 revisited, nor the Millennium Stadium four years ago. We are not in a crisis but we are in a rut.

The buck stops with the players as they are the only ones positioned between the white lines to do anything about it. That said, management are far from exempt from culpability given what has transpired so far. Make no mistake, the main man needs to take a long and hard look at himself.

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Despite the almost perfect start against the Scots, the negativity emanating from the Irish camp throughout this tournament has been stifling. If it's not the humidity, it's the four- and six-day turnarounds. If it's not injuries, it's the referee.

Every team at this intense tournament has to deal with so many variables but the common denominator is identical issues shared.

To highlight any referee, whether it be Angus Gardner or Nigel Owens, smacks of paranoia in the extreme. By that I mean, if we are to now go the route of having penalty decisions scrutinised post-match, to the extent that World Rugby determines (in Joe Schmidt's words): "We were penalised four times for offside (against the Japanese) and three of those were incorrect calls. It's unusual for us to have a higher penalty count than our opponents."

Would it be stretching it to suggest the opposition coach might just have a similar opinion of his own side's discipline in the white heat of battle? What we seem to have here are coaching egos out of control.

Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA

So, what of the number of incidents where penalties might have been awarded by the referee or indeed his assistant (Jerome Garces)? Do we now, after every match, have World Rugby releasing figures on penalties that should and should not have been blown in any given 80 minutes?

Give us a break. Yes, of course referees have their idiosyncrasies, and meticulous coaches like Schmidt analyse those quirks. But they are quirks and nothing more sinister than that.

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The point is that when there is such an ongoing emphasis on 'how we were done' post-match it seeps into the mindset of the squad. Funny how, in Schmidt's opinion, "Wayne (Barnes) did a super job (in Ireland v Scotland)". I wonder why.

Against the host nation and more particularly against the Russians, we played like a squad carrying the world of worries on our shoulders. We are better than that.

In the blink of an eyelid, Jordan Larmour showed what an inside shimmy and outside step can create when opening the door for Keith Earls to send Garry Ringrose clear for the most inciteful try of the five against the Russians.

Simon Zebo is not far off when he suggests: "In attack we just lack a freedom to express ourselves. Joe has his structures and systems and the way he wants to play and put pressure on teams."

We will see the job done against Samoa on Saturday and quarter-final qualification achieved. Hopefully that quarter-final will be against the Springboks on the basis that the Scots can pull a big one out of the locker against Japan.

However, in order to go where no Irish squad has gone before, we need to be bold and trust in the skill set we know to be there, specifically in the guise of Larmour, Andrew Conway, Earls, Jacob Stockdale and Ringrose - players who could slot comfortably into any sevens set up.

There is definitely a fear factor which, from the outside, looks like excessive control from the coaching think-tank. We can still maintain our keep-ball principles upon which Schmidt's system thrives.

Throwing off the shackles suggests something extreme, but that is not what this side needs and we are too far into the tournament for that. However, a little mental TLC in private - whereby inventiveness down the outside centre and wider channels is encouraged rather than shunned out of fear - could go a long way.

Rob Kearney.
Rob Kearney.

To put it in the most simplistic terms, it would be lovely to see an Irish team on the world stage playing with a smile on its face and playing the moment rather than the process. God, if there's one word in the modern vernacular I detest it's "process".

I was brought up in rugby and soccer on the principle of attacking space and seeking out opportunities through skill and invention.

What has changed is professionalism I guess, coaches controlling players through the dreaded "process".

I would have loved to be a professional sportsman. I know I would have been as dedicated as any player but, in all fairness, I would have been a nightmare and severe test for any coach.

Joe wouldn't have had me within an ass's roar of Carton House.

The point here is the middle line between rugby off a computer and the game played with the appropriate intensity, but equally from the heart.

The All Blacks are not infallible. They make mistakes, but they are the best because of those mistakes. Fear is not a factor. I still believe in Joe Schmidt and in his squad delivering a performance we can all be proud of.

In the last two games they have sold themselves short but there is a big one bubbling under. The Samoan challenge should look after itself and then will follow a showdown set to grind the nation to a halt. Time to release the shackles and let wounded pride heal itself.

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