Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tony Ward: Be warned – this could get worse before it gets better

Ireland's Sean O'Brien leaves the field after being substituted during the Guinness Series match with Australia on Saturday
Ireland's Sean O'Brien leaves the field after being substituted during the Guinness Series match with Australia on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As reality checks go, this was top of the range. The promise of the previous week – and there were promising signs, albeit against much inferior opposition – was eradicated by as flat and technically inept a performance as I have witnessed from an Irish side since ... well since losing to the Italians in Rome back in March.

Then we were lacking tactical nous, and so it was again on Saturday.

If anyone doubted the reality of where this side is now at, we got ample evidence against an improving team, but by no means a good one relative to Wallaby outfits of the past.

We weren't just beaten by the fourth-ranked team in the world – we were annihilated.

I don't use that word lightly but it's a very long time (not even Rome) since I have been so deflated after an Ireland match.

God only knows how Joe Schmidt is feeling now, because we were outmuscled, out-thought and outplayed by a vastly superior force, but one not all that far ahead in terms of its transition.

The Ireland head coach conceded to his team being a "work in progress" in the immediate aftermath. He was being overly generous to himself and his squad.

It is the Wallabies under Ewen McKenzie who can, on this evidence, claim to be a work in progress – because if progress means building on the week before, then in Ireland's case it doesn't apply.

They say you learn much more about yourself in defeat than in victory and let's sincerely hope that is the case ahead of the juggernaut coming our way in six days' time.

Four tries to nil on our home patch is fully reflective of the game. We came a distant second in every facet, from line-out and scrum, to work at the breakdown, to tactical kicking, to defensive alignment and line speed and all the way down to simple passing.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, whatever ball we had, we looked like doing nothing with it.

By comparison with the fired-up Wallabies, we were bereft of class (as in the ability to create a meaningful line-break other than the odd individual sortie) and, on this occasion, bereft of on-field leadership.

With the possible exception of Sean O'Brien, no Irish player can look back on this game with anything other than angst. The video analysis will have made for grim viewing.

MESS

What in theory might have been the springboard to the biggest one of all has instead left us in an unadulterated mess. If Johnny Sexton's hamstring injury was serious enough to keep him out of the second half, then he will be lucky to play again this side of Christmas.

We can bitch all we want about him not being freely available to Ireland, but put yourself in Racing Metro's place. Your star man and main playmaker costs you a king's ransom and he comes back from international duty crocked. Of course this is all his new paymaster's fault for daring to call the tune...

Sexton's injury is unfortunate but a long way removed from why we lost this game. The lesson is that right now we are just not good enough. Schmidt has inherited a decent crop of players but an ageing group badly in need of replenishment.

He needs time and he needs patience on the part of the public and the IRFU in overseeing a changing of the guard.

What we must not have again is the type of pressure exerted by committee on his predecessors Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney, whereby a top two finish in the Six Nations was a necessity.

Right now we are at best fourth behind England, France and Wales, so let us accept it and give Schmidt and his new management the space and time to plan beyond the upcoming Six Nations instead of papering over the cracks.

Like many out there, I wanted to believe the magic wand had arrived but, as Saturday's abysmal performance illustrated, that is far from the case.

We are at best a group of players in transition, but I believe in Schmidt. I believe he is the right man to take us forward in the right way, if he is given the time and space. I also believe he is strong enough to stand up to whatever pressure might come from the corridors of power in the coming weeks. As he has already proved by way of his selections to date, he is not afraid to make new or innovative calls.

He must not be driven into a shell but encouraged to do what he does best in building a new and enlightened squad. It was never going to be easy but, on this depressing evidence, it will be much more difficult and radical than any of us had envisaged.

With the world champions – the best rugby team on the planet – in town, it's likely to become an awful lot worse before it gets any better. The time has come for our leaders to stand tall. It's the very least the new man deserves.

Irish Independent

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