Sunday 13 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'World Cup may be coming a year too late for Ireland'

Half-backs must raise game at Murrayfield after England expose unexpected frailties

On the charge: England’s Mako Vunipola takes on Rory Best (right) and Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
On the charge: England’s Mako Vunipola takes on Rory Best (right) and Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Optimists will claim that Saturday's loss to England was a blip, just one of those things or, better again, a timely wake-up call before the World Cup. Pessimists, or realists, may feel the manner of defeat shows the 2019 tournament has come along a year too late for Ireland.

It could be that 2018 was the blip and that what occurred on Saturday was the restoration of the natural order. After all 12 months ago England were favourites to win the Six Nations and confirm their status as chief challengers to the All Blacks. Instead they self-destructed spectacularly and Ireland picked up an unexpected Grand Slam.

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Buoyed by this, Joe Schmidt's team went on to win a series in Australia for the first time in 39 years before earning a first ever home victory against the All Blacks. Given the unprecedented nature of these achievements the Irish sporting public can be forgiven for losing the run of itself.

The optimism was not unwarranted. Ireland were irresistible last year and had the World Cup taken place in autumn 2018, might have won it. But that was then and this is now.

England's eclipse last year erased memories of their previous achievements. But prior to their defeat by Ireland in March 2017 Eddie Jones had steered his team to successive Six Nations wins, one a Grand Slam. They'd won 17 tests in a row, including a 3-0 series triumph in Australia.

One bad season was enough to see this team become utter also rans in Irish minds. Yet there were ominous signs during the November internationals when England beat South Africa, hammered Australia and came within a borderline offside decision of matching Ireland's victory against the All Blacks.

Henry Slade goes over to score a crucial second-half try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Henry Slade goes over to score a crucial second-half try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The focus on the weakness of English clubs in the Champions Cup failed to note that their flagship side Saracens ended the group stages as No 1 seeds. The team of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers had won the European Cup in 2016 and 2017 when England won the Six Nations before enduring a rocky 2018 which presaged the national team's struggles. This year both sides seem back to their best.

Perhaps last year was as good as it gets for Irish rugby. Our previous Grand Slam, in 2009, was followed by years of mid-table mediocrity. The fall-off may not be as precipitous this time but the great seasons require a monumental effort considering our playing resources. England's 2003 World Cup victory was the culmination of a decade during which they'd never lost more than one game in a Five/Six Nations season. Similar spells are beyond Ireland. We must strike while the iron is hot.

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It's not very hot right now. Twelve months ago Conor Murray was unquestionably the world's best scrum-half. But since his injury lay-off the Munster man has been a pale shadow of himself. In the past he has tormented Ben Youngs. On Saturday Youngs was the dominant figure, with Murray diffident and anonymous by comparison.

Suggesting Owen Farrell might be a more complete out-half than Johnny Sexton would once have seemed blasphemous. But on Saturday the England No 10 ran the game masterfully while his Irish counterpart was entirely out of sorts. It was hardly surprising given Sexton was playing his first game of 2019 but his selection shows why talk of awesome Irish strength in depth doesn't hold much water.

An error from Jacob Stockdale led to Elliot Daly scoring England’s second try. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
An error from Jacob Stockdale led to Elliot Daly scoring England’s second try. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

If Joe Schmidt wasn't going to select Joey Carbery over Sexton on Saturday he's unlikely to do so in any game which really matters. Murray's position is even more bullet proof.

Then there's the case of Rob Kearney. The experiment of playing Robbie Henshaw at full-back proved spectacularly ill-founded. You could practically hear Farrell smacking his lips as he tortured the converted centre with astute tactical kicks. Henshaw's kicking is not as good as Kearney's and he lacks his Leinster colleague's authority under the high ball. He does not look like an international full-back.

Schmidt's selection of Henshaw indicates a loss of faith in Kearney, whose remarkable renaissance last year was one of the lynchpins of the Grand Slam season. There is now a nagging uncertainty about the performance levels of full-back, out-half and scrum-half which did not exist in 2018.

A couple of injuries have also revealed surprisingly thin cover in the pack. It hasn't taken long to get down to the likes of Quinn Roux and David Kilcoyne who, with all due respect, don't seem like potential World Cup winners. The injury to CJ Stander will impose further strain.

Such injuries are perhaps inevitable given the gruelling 12 months Ireland's players have endured at international and club level. Wear and tear seems to be setting in. On Saturday Tadhg Furlong, Peter O'Mahony and Rory Best, warriors who normally have to be carried out on their shields, were simply pushed around.

The jaded quality of the Irish performance may be an inevitable reaction to the herculean efforts of the past year. The recovery needs to start at Murrayfield next Saturday.

Schmidt badly needs players to come in as Jacob Stockdale, Dan Leavy and James Ryan did last year and provide new options. There was an idea that the World Cup squad was set in stone. It now appears that a transfusion of new blood is required.

There's always talk about the Irish World Cup hoodoo but the reason for our underachievement is hardly mysterious. A small nation like Ireland is only ever going to peak periodically.

It would be great if those peak years coincided with the quadrennial World Cup cycle but there's a good chance they won't.

This year our timing could be off once more.

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