Sunday 16 June 2019

Tony Ward: Is this the real Ireland? We can only hope it isn't

Rory Best and Simon Zebo struggle to get to grips with England fly-half George Ford during Ireland’s defeat at Twickenham
Rory Best and Simon Zebo struggle to get to grips with England fly-half George Ford during Ireland’s defeat at Twickenham
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If victory over Ireland is being acknowledged as a launch-pad moment for England then what does defeat mean for us?

On the back of losing to the Welsh the previous week, Paul O'Connell described it as "disappointing but I still feel we're in a good place". In fairness, as captain to the best team in the Six Nations over the past two years, what else could he say?

We all agreed ahead of Saturday's Twickenham showdown that winning for Ireland was second to performance. For England, the objective was to achieve both. To that end it was Stuart Lancaster who emerged the happier.

It wasn't a world-beating England win by any stretch and certainly Steve Hansen, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the rest will not be losing any sleep watching two of the powerhouses of the northern hemisphere slog it out in typical attritional fashion.

It was what it was - a limited Irish performance, reasonable on endeavour, good on set-piece efficiency but again creatively inept. As each of the warm-up games has gone by, particularly the last two at home to the Welsh and away to the English, you hope and pray that what we are seeing is nowhere close to Ireland at full throttle.

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I am not privy to what goes on in training behind closed doors but I suspect the real Ireland has yet to emerge and the canny Joe Schmidt is playing his hand ever closer his chest. If he's not we're on mission impossible.


That we will beat the Canadians and Romanians without showing anything either is a given. The draw has been incredibly kind with the opening two pool matches providing the opportunity to give almost every player in the 31 a starting run.

Not for a minute are we suggesting at this distance he will but certainly given the quality of the opposition in those opening two games that opportunity is there to make this World Cup all-inclusive for the players.

It then moves up a gear through the Italians and on to the French. Now while we won't be taking any one of our Pool D opponents for granted, but if we want to hold genuine semi-final aspirations, and we do, then we've got to demand so much more of ourselves.

What we witnessed on Saturday for the second game running was straitjacket rugby. Of course it is strategy with a purpose and we do get that. But it is so boring and so predictable that even winning fails completely cover up the limited ambition.

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The puzzle in the back of all our minds is that if Joe can do it with Leinster then why not with Ireland? There is of course a valid and very straightforward answer to that. At Leinster, he inherited a top-quality set of backs still close to the prime of their playing pomp.

With Ireland we are up a notch with a less talented and still far from settled backline unit. To that end, Schmidt is cutting his cloth to fit and apart from Hansen there is none better at playing to strengths and hiding limitations.

Mind you, that's probably not a fair analogy given I would be struggling to point out too many limitations in the Kiwi squad as currently constituted.

But back to Twickenham, to the good, the bad and the almost inconsequential. On the plus side, the scrum was really good, the lineout pretty good especially when exerting pressure on the opposition throw (and yes we did cough up one bad one close to their line coming up to the break), while the penalty count was down dramatically from the previous week. Bear in mind I think it was about seven minutes into the second half before we conceded a penalty shot at goal to George Ford.

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In individual terms, I felt Dave Kearney was again outstanding in attitude and performance. In just a few weeks he has shot from battling to make the cut to number one wing were it the French next up.

He's not the fastest wide attacker available to Schmidt by any means but it is the complete package he offers. Quite apart from Simon Zebo, the current back-up to brother Rob in the last line, Dave or Jared Payne could slot in comfortably at full-back.

Zebo did well again on Saturday and while outfoxed by Ford and Anthony Watson for England's second try, he was not as suggested responsible for Johnny May's opening score. Zebo's most comfortable and most effective position is on the left wing with, like Kearney, a licence to roam.

As a Tommy Bowe fan, I felt the still much underrated wing had a poor outing on Saturday. May won that particular battle hands down.

The midfield permutation, though solid in the Six Nations, is still not right and the head coach knows it. I thought Payne's work rate and tackle count was outstanding but as a pairing Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph, despite having played just a quarter of an hour together at this level back in 2012, appeared so much more comfortable and threatening in each other's company.

Robbie Henshaw is a great talent but with a bit still to learn. And learn he will with that second-half forward pass, despite deep in his own half, an undoubted try-scoring opportunity lost. We won't labour the point but he knows it. Beyond that, Jamie Heaslip was again the epitome of honesty in everything he did while Eoin Reddan had an assured outing when replacing Conor Murray.

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Davin Toner did little to suggest the battle with Iain Henderson is a fait accompli, while Peter O'Mahony particularly and Sean O'Brien were inconspicuous to say the least. On the plus side we had no more injuries (the Murray knock allowing).

All that said, "the good place" to which the skipper refers could be better.

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