Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: Where's our f****** pride?

Time to invoke Ciaran Fitzgerald's rallying cry and go back to basics to avoid a second drubbing in a week, which would do untold damage to Irish rugby

Ireland weren't just bad on Saturday – they were atrocious. Quite simply, Joe Schmidt's men were annihilated on their own patch.

It's a long time since I last came away from an Ireland game so crushingly disappointed.

Of course there have been bad days and disappointing defeats, but this was as poor a performance as there has been in the professional era.

It wasn't as spectacularly disastrous as the record defeat to New Zealand in Hamilton in 2012 or the Six Nations low of Rome back in March, but in terms of being outplayed, outclassed, outflanked, outmuscled, out-thought and, more than anything, outfought, this was an Ireland display to rank with the very worst of the amateur days.

In those dark times, for every good day there were six bad ones. Often we would be competitive for an hour before disappearing without trace in the final quarter. Professionalism, and the resultant improvement in conditioning, has helped enormously in that key regard.

So what went so badly wrong to cause such a listless and inept display against Australia?

I'm not sure even the players can answer that one, but I do suspect there was an element of information overload. Schmidt and his new management team are frustrated at having so little time to get their ideas and philosophy across.

DIFFICULTY

Equally, the players appear to be having great difficulty in taking in the information and changed strategies coming their way. The end result is an Irish team taking to the field without the fire and brimstone we, of all nations, simply cannot afford to be without.

Australia's players are traditionally much more skilful than ours. That is a given. But what we lacked in natural talent we have long compensated for by way of hard work and relentless intensity, with a fair dollop of tactical nous mixed in.

It has not always been a winning formula, but it usually has us in the contest with a fair shout right to the end.

Some may take offence at the 'fighting Irish' tag, but given our limited playing base relative to other nations, it is the most essential ingredient we must take with us into battle every time.

I am not being overly simplistic here but against an average, if improving, Wallabies we weren't at the races when it came to so many of the traditional combative traits we usually take for granted.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that those on duty on Saturday weren't trying. They were, of course. But somewhere along the way the fundamental ingredient essential to every Irish rugby team got lost.

So where to for Schmidt and Ireland now? Under normal circumstances you would say, "great, we have another game immediately to get this nightmare out of our system".

Alas, the force coming our way is frightening. In these pages in his preview to last Saturday's match, Vincent Hogan made reference to the play 'Alone It Stands' and the celebration of Munster's famous defeat of the All Blacks 35 years ago. His point was well made.

What message does that send out to Steve Hansen, Richie McCaw and the rest of the New Zealand party of 2013?

Glorious as that victory was, the fact that we're still celebrating it 35 years on does not say a lot for how we have done against the All Blacks ever since.

I would draw on '78 in one respect, though. We were rank outsiders then, as Ireland will be on Sunday. Did we think we could win? No. We didn't believe we had a snowball's hope in hell. But what we did believe, and what we did buy into by virtue of a long-established tradition, was the proud Munster record against touring sides.

That message is as alive for Paul O'Connell and his squad today as it was for Donal Canniffe and his back then.

Another Kiwi drubbing on Sunday will set Irish rugby back so far, given what has been achieved since the turn of the century.

It is difficult to contemplate what direction Schmidt goes from here. Certainly, every Irish player will be sleeping uncomfortably until the head coach declares his hand.

Indeed in the post-match interview the coach's declaration of "at least having another match under our belt" was about as positive a straw as he could clutch.

Probably the most constructive post-match comment from an Irish perspective came via Wallaby skipper Ben Mowen when praising his own side for their "desperation" in the build-up and subsequent performance. We are now every bit as desperate, probably more so, as another battering at the hands of the All Blacks could set the game here back so much.

So in terms of damage limitation, let us go back to basics by way of the never-say-die passion and relentless intensity. We will be rank outsiders – nothing new about that – but what we do need, to borrow from Ciaran Fitzgerald all those years ago, is to get back some of our 'f*****g pride'.

That comes from within the players themselves – no one can manufacture that core desire. Irish rugby was let down badly by the team's abysmal display, but what better way to set the record straight than by putting it up to the Kiwis?

A case could be made for dropping any one of a dozen players on the basis of the Wallaby horror show.

But what purpose would that serve, given the time constraints and damage to morale that has already been inflicted? With the obvious exception of out-half (where Johnny Sexton is likely to be ruled out through injury), I would leave the team well enough alone and set the same match-day crew on a mission of redemption.

I would love to operate off a clean slate but reality dictates otherwise. Change for the sake of change is never the solution, and if Schmidt believes he can implement improvement by way of tweaking things then so be it.

There is little to choose between Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson (who was very good against the Samoans), but my gut instinct tells me Madigan will be given a starting run, leaving it a straight call between Keith Earls (if fit), Dave Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy to fill the 23rd-man berth.

It's a big ask for Ireland at the Aviva – but restoring some pride in the jersey is the minimum requirement for Schmidt and Co.

Irish Independent

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