It’s fair to say it wasn’t the Six Nations campaign Ireland would have envisaged heading into the World Cup. Two convincing defeats against both England and Wales caused some concern and it showed many things Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff have to work on in the coming months as Ireland looked sometimes flawless in 2018, only being defeated once, although the glory bubble has definitely been burst.
Ireland looked flat throughout the championship, failing to show that accuracy and precision we’ve become accustom to in recent times, simple handling errors, one-dimensional game plan and players like Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton only performing to a fraction of their proven ability. The first half versus France was the only time we saw the performance we expected. We learned plenty of things about this team and there are definitely certain key areas that we must fix before September. Here’s what we learned:
Ireland struggle with the favourites tag: Ireland came into this competition as favourites as they didn’t look like a team that was going to lose anytime soon, with Leinster looking strong in Europe as they hope to retain their title, Ulster and Munster also qualified too and Ireland have the most clubs in the quarter final stage. Prior to the competition I tipped Ireland to retain their title as personally I thought they looked too strong. I was always going to be tough and I suspected they would get defeated once, although I was incorrect and quite surprised. The way in which we were physically and defensively dominated by England surprised many people, as they conceded a bonus point and failed to get a losing bonus point of their own. It was an opening result that made Ireland’s chances of retaining the title very unlikely. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ireland came into the competition after winning the Six Nations title that year and impressively topping their group before they were broken apart by Argentina’s backline in the quarter-final stages in one of the worst Irish performances in recent memory, many people would have expected Ireland to make the last four for the first time. In 2011 Ireland dispatched Australia in convincing fashion in the group stage before they flopped against Wales in the quarter-finals. Ireland strive when we least expect it, so let’s hope they turn things around come September.
Devin Toner and Dan Leavy are key players: I’ve always been a firm believer that a good working set-piece can create such a good platform for teams to succeed in matches. Devin Toner is the glue that keeps that Ireland lineout together, he’s the main hitman and conductor of the calls. A man of his height is such is an easy target for Rory Best to work with and the efficiency of the line-out was one of our major strongpoints last year as it gave our backs so many more opportunities to play fast rugby. Toner got injured in the opening game and was majorly missed throughout, especially against Italy as the line-out was awful. He needs to be fully fit come September.
Dan Leavy was one of the breakthrough players for Ireland last season along with James Ryan. I’ve always thought of him as a massively underrated player as he does a lot of the unseen work, not the biggest ball carrier, but he makes big tackles and is a complete workhorse at ruck time. His absence due to an injury was definitely noticeable. Josh van der Flier is the most natural in that position and he has been really impressive but problems with injury have hampered his international career in recent times.
Murray and Sexton need to find their form again: Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were arguably the best half-back partnership in the world last year and it was hard to criticise their performances, although I think it’s fair to say they didn’t play to their full capabilities in the last few games and it’s not what we have come to expect. Murray had very little game time underneath his belt this season and Sexton only plays in the big games for Leinster these days. They looked very lacklustre and their poor performances effect the whole team as they are two of the leading players in the squad. I can guarantee if they don’t find their form from 2018, we can forget about any hopes of winning a World Cup in September.
On a more positive note, I have to compliment Garry Ringrose as I thought he was impressive throughout and is a player who is constantly getting better all the time. He looks so comfortable with the ball and is Brian O’Driscoll like when he attacks with his ability to get low and create space. Jack Carty has to be mentioned as I think he did well in his stints off the bench getting his first few caps.
Even the greatest teams lose every once in a while, and I wouldn’t panic over these performances. There’s a lot to improve on and we don’t look perfect but I really think we can still have a massive World Cup in September and I wouldn’t write off Ireland yet!
By Ciaron Noble