Thursday 18 July 2019

Murray and Aki woes sum up day to forget

Schmidt, his coaching team and players have much to learn for Scotland game after rampant England teach champions harsh lesson

Grand Slammed: Ireland players applaud Owen Farrell and his England team-mates off the pitch after the opening Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Grand Slammed: Ireland players applaud Owen Farrell and his England team-mates off the pitch after the opening Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

There were players down on the Aviva Stadium turf who barely remember the bad old days of the 1990s and early 2000s. They got a taste of how things used to be on Saturday night.

A rugby team drunk on success from 2018 woke up yesterday to the hangover to end all hangovers. This morning, the sobering reality of what happens when they fail to perform kicks in.

Bundee Aki: Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki: Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Their response will be everything.

From the first whistle, England were sensational, touching the heights of the 2003 World Cup winning team's Grand Slam performance at the same venue.

However, while acknowledging the opposition's excellence, Ireland know they have serious issues to address as they go to Murrayfield to face Scotland on Saturday.

The baby will remain firmly in the bath water. A bad day at the office was difficult to consume and even harder to understand, but the body of work the team has built in the past two years should see them through.

That's as long as they learn from this 80-minute series of mistakes.

Ireland were well beaten in every facet of the game and when Joe Schmidt's Ireland are well beaten it's a particularly ugly sight.

This was one of the worst days of a glorious era, joining the 2013 loss to Australia and the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in 2015.

In the aftermath, Schmidt spoke with impressive clarity about what had gone wrong and last night he assembled his squad in Carton House and began trying to repair the damage.

His first task is to assess the physical impact of a bruising game, then he will look for a response.

"With a game as attritional as that one, you've really got to allow sufficient recovery time," Schmidt said.

"As much as anything, it is about getting our confidence back, getting mentally realigned, so that we can go out and deliver in a lot more positive manner, in a physically confrontational manner next week."

CJ Stander is almost certainly out of the tournament with a broken cheekbone, while Keith Earls and Devin Toner are struggling with hip and ankle problems.

Jack Conan is the like-for-like replacement, but Seán O'Brien did well off the bench on Saturday. He may find a home elsewhere in the back-row, as Schmidt lamented Ireland's inability to turn over a single English possession.

Cleverly, they ran at Josh van der Flier and took him out of the game as a breakdown threat. The openside made 19 tackles and missed none, but he was at the bottom of rucks when Ireland needed him getting in over the ball.

Nobody else picked up the slack; Peter O'Mahony was largely anonymous, Stander was playing hurt and the front-row were on the back-foot.

If Toner misses out it means either Ultan Dillane or Quinn Roux start, which will put Ireland's lineout under serious pressure.

And if Earls isn't fit, then it removes the one experienced member of a back-three that underperformed.


The question for Schmidt is whether to stick with the Robbie Henshaw experiment and bed him in at full-back properly or recall Rob Kearney, who remains short on game-time.

You can be sure Scotland will ask similar questions of the back-firing Irish back three pendulum.

Personnel changes aside, there are major issues about Ireland's play.

Their passing was terrible, beginning with Conor Murray, who returned to international rugby after his long-term lay-off and looked a shadow of his former self.

He wasn't the only one to show signs of rust.

"Johnny hasn't played this calendar year, so I do think there is always a need to get a little bit of rhythm into your game. Conor is still coming back from that long-term injury," Schmidt said.

"We had a few other guys that were coming back from not having too much time on the pitch, including Robbie.

"Seán O'Brien, I thought he did well coming off the bench considering he didn't have a lot of game time at all. So from that perspective I do think that we will improve and, let's face it, we know we have to."

For some reason, Bundee Aki was appointed the playmaking second receiver instead of Garry Ringrose and he didn't look comfortable in the role. The back three rarely got the ball in front of them, as the rare chances to run started with a check to receive the ball.

England, in contrast, were always on the front-foot.

Up front, the lineout generally worked fine, but England were superb in disrupting Ireland once they got to the ground.

For all that there were issues in a whole range of areas, it ultimately came down to Ireland's inability to win the collisions from first minute to last.

England made 48 dominant tackles to Ireland's eight a stat that sums up a day where the bullies became the bullied and the best team of 2018 got a rude awakening.

"It is a mental challenge," Schmidt said of the week ahead. "There is a lot of guys hurting at the moment and they will be looking for a way back in. I think the only way back in is to roll our sleeves up, show that resilience mentally that we are going to have to demonstrate next Saturday.


"It is not just about physically getting up and having that vibrancy, it is about mentally being attuned and ready to go and retaining the confidence that we should have.

"We are human and there are times that human beings, without ever being complacent, if you assume anything in this world of high performance sport, assumption will undo you.

"We couldn't assume we could rock up and just deliver a performance that they would accept. They accepted nothing from us and gave us as little as possible and that's a credit to them."

Scotland are not as good as England, but Jones has given them a template for success.

For the first time in a couple of seasons, Ireland are on the back foot.

They're a much better team than they showed on Saturday, but they need to show that in Edinburgh and get the 2019 show back on the road.

Irish Independent

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