Monday 27 January 2020

Brent Pope: 'Dark day must be start of a bright approach'

OVER AND OUT: Ireland captain Rory Best makes his way off after being substituted in his last international in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand at the Tokyo Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
OVER AND OUT: Ireland captain Rory Best makes his way off after being substituted in his last international in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand at the Tokyo Stadium. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Unfortunately it's an all too familiar sight, that every four years, come the Olympics of the game, Ireland limp out of the competition despite being ranked the No 1 side in the world going into it.

Sport can give us wonderful moments in our lives, moments full of nervous adrenaline or serotonin, days when we can all remember where we were or what we were doing, but it can also deliver the cruellest of moments when emotions, expectation and confidence are at their lowest.

Joe Schmidt and Rory Best have delivered plenty of moments of unadulterated joy in Irish rugby, a Grand Slam, Six Nations Championships, historical 'monkey off the back' wins against the All Blacks and winning tours to the Southern Hemisphere, and both these proud servants of the Irish game deserved a better send off than they received in Tokyo.

Joe Schmidt will rightfully retain the legacy as Ireland's most successful coach to date, and his cv bulges with his achievements, so too Irish captain Rory Best, who has led his country with class and distinction.

That is why this one-sided loss is so galling, it was in the end a fairly quick fall from grace.

It was not so much the defeat that hurt, after all Ireland were 4-1 underdogs going into the match (exactly where many thought Ireland preferred to be), but in the nature of the defeat.

On Saturday Ireland drowned in the Black Sea, taken apart by a well-oiled machine hunting for revenge and smarting because of the fact that Ireland felt they 'had their number'.

Last week in the build-up to this quarter-final showdown, I questioned the evolution of both the Irish and All Black sides.

It seemed that the All Blacks took their recent losses against Ireland (11 months ago) as an opportunity to go back, lick their wounds and come up with a plan and player skill-set to break rush defences.

Ireland continued with the 'if it's not broke don't try fix it' plan, with losses since the highs of 2018 to England, Wales, England (again) and then Japan as just blips, and not as they should have been - warning shots.

New Zealand talked about how impressive Ireland's defence had been in shutting them down, and also looked at ways of combatting both England and South Africa's power game.

Steve Hansen set about not only moving his best player, Beauden Barrett, to another position, but introduced some young Canterbury Crusader players into the All Black mix, players that Hansen felt could fulfil his vision - players that could go around a brick wall rather than into it.

If the All Black and Japanese styles are the way forward then I am a convert, the game desperately needs to move away from the power and physicality-based game to one of less contact and and a higher skill-set.

Ireland's incoming think-tank, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt have a chance to start over, a chance to promote players who buy into their philosophy.

Ireland were blown away on Saturday, and to be honest were never really in the match. A catalogue of basic mistakes stalled their approach, and once the All Blacks had their three-score lead, Ireland were already in damage limitation mode.

Ireland never had a chance to use their kicking game to any effect because the kicks were too long and mostly straight down the throat of perhaps the world's most exciting back-three.

The Irish chasers didn't win the ball back and were a distant second in the close quarter collision areas, where New Zealand's forwards seemed to get in behind Ireland's defensive screen with ease, just as Japan had.

When Ireland were breached they become ragged in defence and the Kiwis poured through, offloading rather than taking contact and spreading the play from touchline to touchline.

New Zealand did get lucky when a short ball looked to offer Rob Kearney a rare route through, but as they had done against South Africa in the opening pool match, New Zealand were so clinical that it resulted in another long range All Black try, a try that effectively ended this match.

Ireland just could not get any possession off a team superior in all aspects and I could not count a time when Ireland ever looked like really making a clean break.

The clash of heads between Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw did not help matters, but it did not change the course of this game.

As they had against England in the warm-up matches, Ireland did not seem to know how to pick up the opposition players when they were stretched, too often defensively biting in and leaving acres of space for the likes of Sevu Reece and Barrett to exploit.

Ireland's key playmakers again struggled to make any impact, probably because they were under so much pressure and far too often on the back-foot.

Ireland were forced to make too many tackles in an encounter that was slipping away from them after just 15 minutes.

As expected, Ireland's scrum and lineout held pretty firm but they lost the close exchanges and New Zealand's rampant loose forwards, led by the outstanding Ardie Savea were far more dynamic, cut better lines of running and were prepared to change the point of attack.

The inclusion of young players like Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour, was too late, but both asked questions of the All Blacks by changing the gameplan, but by then the damage was done.

I felt for my fellow country man Schmidt, this was not the way he wanted it all to end.

All coaches ask "if they leave their team in a better place than where they found it" and we can answer that for the likeable Schmidt, Yes.

The future is up to the new breed of Irish player and a new way of playing the game. Over to you Andy.

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