A Japanese victory for the ages, a triumph not only for the tournament but rugby more generally: last weekend’s match has been held up as the upset required to truly energise this World Cup, but where did it all go wrong for Ireland? a team who, just one year ago, convincingly beat the mighty All Blacks.
According to Eammon Sweeney, writing in the Irish Independent coach Joe Schmidt, departing after the World Cup, has become a “zombie manager,” presiding over a, “zombie team, condemned to trek on for another three weeks towards inevitable quarter-final defeat.”
This sort of fatalistic narrative has been all pervading in the Irish press this week, and not without good reason. Ireland have lost four times already this year, play with little to no inventiveness and appear incapable of scoring tries from open play.
There were of course mitigating factors. The absence of Johnny Sexton, for instance, despite his lack of form, was important. Jack Carty may have showed some classy individual touches, and is undoubtedly an able fly half, but lacked the authority to direct and control the collective. Inside him, Conor Murray, so excellent against Scotland, was ponderous from the base.
Likewise, the emotional energy of Japan, the heat and the moisture on the ball seemed to unnerve Ireland. However, the problems on show, an inability to control the tempo, a poor kicking game and repetitive, weak ball carrying for example, are not new.
Ultimately Japans endeavor, relentless and ambitious as it was, brought them success, whereas Ireland’s proscribed, stagnant game plan, which has floundered all of 2019 and yet seems essentially unaltered, failed them again.
Japan’s variety was in stark contrast to the Irish predictability. In attacking the short side, kicking smartly, and deploying clever set plays Japan were able to disturb the rhythm and flow of Andy Farrell’s defensive structure, which lacked the aggressive line speed we have become accustomed to seeing.
The Japanese played with width, speed of though and foot, and deserve enormous credit. Surprising the Irish with the ferocity of their collisions, they were able to maintain their energy, both emotional and physical, for the full 80 minutes. Japan are convinced that they are the fittest side in the tournament, and Ireland were unable to cope with them maximising ball in play time.
Did Ireland underestimate Japan? It seems unlikely. The side Schmidt selected was strong and under performed. On the day the Irish were unable to match the fitness, energy and that intangible emotional fortitude of the Japanese team.
According to Alan Quinlan, “we were naïve and lacked a bit of control and leadership, and tactically, the players have got to do that [react to circumstances rather than rely on proscribed patterns] on the field.”
Ireland now face a quarter final exit to New Zealand. It is all so predictable on and off the pitch. Can Schmidt fix it? I think not. The system he has put in place is so ingrained it has become overwhelming. Ireland have no flair.
They possess players with flair, of course, such as Ringrose, Aki, Carbery and Conan, but they seem restricted by the Schmidt straight jacket. To have any chance of winning against New Zealand they must play a more expansive, heads up game. The chances of them clobbering such a game plan together in a few weeks seem slim.
Written by Joe Ronan