Brent Pope: 'The hype leaked into the players’ psyche and they have not yet fully recovered'
Irish rugby is not panicking yet but coach Joe Schmidt needs to pull Ireland out of a bit of a slump in the next two matches, otherwise in a World Cup cycle year it could develop into a problem.
Wales also had an uninspiring start to this year’s Championship, lucky to beat a misfiring France in Paris, and then like Ireland, struggling to put a limited Italy away.
Nobody saw their result against England coming. After all England had seemed invincible after their impressive start, but after just one good game, Wales were now ‘the new best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere’.
So, if Ireland can beat France and defeat Wales in Cardiff, normal service will be resumed. You don’t become a a poor team overnight, and this is basically the same group that won a Grand Slam in 2018, and beat the world champion All Blacks twice.
Schmidt has possibly over-achieved, and the nation expects. So what of this so-called slump? In my opinion people are not placing enough importance on Ireland’s first up loss to England.
The one-sided manner of that defeat put a pin in Ireland’s confidence and expectation. We were all guilty of hyping up the team, perhaps that leaked into the players’ psyche and they have not yet fully recovered.
Ireland have not really relaxed since, and have been trying too hard to put it right.
The best golfers in the world will tell you about the ‘yips’, when a sudden lack of confidence becomes a habit.
International Rugby Newsletter
Ireland have two weeks in which the whole outlook can change. This weekend it’s the unpredictable French in the Aviva, and Ireland need to win. More significantly they need to deliver a good performance.
It won’t be a cake-walk, and for the first time since he took over, French coach Jacques Brunel has at least remained consistent with his selection. That means the promotion of young French talent like Romain N’Tamack , Antoine Dupont, Tomas Ramos and huge front rower Demba Bamba, all exciting home-grown players.
Scrum-half Dupont has been excellent since he replaced Morgan Parra. N’tamack, like his father, is a prodigious talent at out-half.
Ireland need to start this game well, and not allow France to build on their renewed confidence. France are unpredictable, but expect them to arrive with a heavy and physical pack led by No 8 Louis Picamoles.
There has been some talk this week about the possibility of benching Johnny Sexton (above) for this game, which to me is ludicrous. Sexton, like others, is struggling for form, and is clearly frustrated.
Just a few months ago he was voted the best player in the world. He just needs to get his mojo back, and that can only happen by giving him more game time.
Sexton playing well remains crucial to Ireland’s success at the World Cup. However, I do believe that Sexton must try and relax, and he will just have to accept that he has become a major target in all games.
Maybe at times he needs to sit in the pocket more rather than taking it hard to the line, where he is constant danger of big and often marginal hits.
My concern is that teams seem to have worked out Ireland’s strengths, especially in the collision areas, where Ireland were fantastic for two years. Teams are committing just one or two players to rucks, and fanning out across the field. They then wait for Ireland’s recognised carriers to take the ball up.
Referees remain poor in marshalling the offside law. When the opposition’s line speed and communication are good, Ireland have been struggling to get those valuable metres over the grainline.
Last year Ireland created such fast ball from the rucks that the opposition teams did not have a chance to fan out, but now teams are slowing Ireland’s ball down. This is an area of Ireland’s play that must improve.
A good win and Ireland can arrest this slight slump and look to re-establishing the pecking order with a serious assault on Cardiff for a positive end to the championship. Lose on Sunday and Ireland really are in a slump.