Friday 28 October 2016

Brent Pope: Are Ireland saving best for later?

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Tommy Bowe before the match
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Tommy Bowe before the match

Despite back-to-back losses to Wales and England, Irish rugby captain Paul O'Connell is correct in his assessment of Ireland's recent below par performances "that they are still in a decent place" but they have plenty to work on over the next month.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt is certainly not one to panic, and nor should he, despite his team delivering their most disappointing performance since the new Irish citizen took over.

But in the context of the world game, Schmidt is not alone? It appears that almost every team including the All Blacks have stuttered over the past month rather than being at full tilt. Over the past weekend alone Wales' RWC is almost over before it began by losing key game breakers Leigh Halfpenny and Ryse Webb.

France who had looked so good against England two weeks ago in Paris reverted back to the type of spasmodic form we witnessed in recent Six Nations (boring) while Australia, Scotland and Italian displays would certainly not have had Schmidt turning in his sleep.


There is a conspiracy theory out there that this Irish team is as yet not showing their hand either in attack and defence, and at times you could see where the men on the grassy knoll are getting their conclusions from.

At one stage in the match Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip made a rare incision through a usually stout English defence, he had two Irish runners on either shoulder to offload to, but he choose to hold on and go to ground, instinct or instruction from a higher quarter?

In another incident flanker Seán O'Brien pulled out of stretching for a loose ball that he may have otherwise competed for in, possibly self preservation.

I still tend to think that Ireland needed a win on Saturday, they needed to bounce back from the loss to Wales and I don't care what any other pundits say, winning is still important, it still builds self-belief and momentum, just ask the English World Cup-winning players from 2003.

Ireland didn't really fire a shot in Twickenham, and to be honest how they managed to get back to 15 points to 13 is remarkable, such was England's first half dominance.

Ireland's kick, chase and contest game, so much part of their clinical back-to-back Six Nations titles, evaporated under the sublime catching skills of English full-back Mike Brown and wingers Johnny May and Antony Watson who were all instructed pregame to stay on the ground and catch the ball above their head in GAA style, it worked because it took out any Irish contest in the air.

Ireland's Plan B was not working that well either, every-time they did get the ball (which for 40 minutes was rare) they were crabbing across field or messing up with basic handling errors after about two phases.

To Ireland's credit they dug deep and held in there, led by the outstanding Dave Kearney, who by a street looks the most energetic and focused player in the Irish backline.

On a positive note Irelands set piece was again good, Prop Mike Ross had a strong game against an opponent that had previously caused him problems, and Ireland's lineout was far superior to England's largely hit and miss operation.

The introduction of the likes of Cian Healy and Ulster's Iain Henderson will take some of the heat and work load off the Irish captain. Ireland are not in a bad place, despite poor results, in fact with a bit of fine tuning and confidence a place in the last four is very much still on course.

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