There’s nothing quite like the hand-wringing after a World Cup exit. England are not just reviewing whether or not to appoint a new coach but the very process by which they appoint coaches. It almost begs the question, who will review the reviewers? Heaven knows what the fallout in France is like, because they have serious problems. The decline of one of the great and most fun rugby nations has been sad indeed.
And so to Ireland, who will have their own self-lacerating episode to get under way, following yet another pre-semi-final exit from the Grand Shindig. No doubt, Schmidt’s eye for detail on the training paddock and in team meetings will extend to the review of his own performance. Schmidt admits to pragmatism and self-doubt, so he will question his every decision along the way and see if he could have done things differently.
The way the tournament has panned out with all four Rugby Championship teams making the semi-finals has delivered a perfectly formed narrative with a great big bow on it. It leads to an easy and obvious analysis that the game is played at a different pace in the south and with a higher level of skill that the European teams simply cannot match.
On the evidence so far, this is more or less true, but it has led to the knock-on argument that Schmidt should radically overhaul Ireland’s playing style in order to compete with the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. It’s an argument not without merit but it’s worth looking at in greater depth.
First of all, what is Ireland’s playing style? More often than not it’s a relatively mechanical one in which aerial domination is king. Both half-backs tend to kick high into the air and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney’s principle roles are to reclaim these kicks. Ireland confine most of their ball-in-hand play to rehearsed set pieces, from which they tend to get substantial reward. Mauling, choke tackling and accurate breakdown work are also prominent. However, they have shown, against Scotland in the Six Nations inparticular, an ability to keep ball in hand. Against France, just two weeks ago, Ireland totally dominated possession and looked to put width on their game. Indeed, even against Argentina, it was defence and not a lack of attacking nous that cost us. Ireland scored two fine tries and 20 points in that match; had they defended better, that may have been enough to win.
It’s been argued in the last week that this is a gameplan devised to beat the likes of England, Wales and France but that it’s too limited to take on the better nations. We’re not so sure. And even so, most of the time, England, Wales and France are the opposition we face when we have to win – every spring in the Six Nations. And nobody was complaining too much when we won the last two series.
We’re in the middle of the World Cup now, and as Demented Mole once put it, Ireland’s fans are like chefs, and work with seasonal produce. We’re bang in the middle of The Grand Shindig right now, and the Six Nations seems a piddling consolation prize by comparison. But memories are short, and come the spring we’ll remember what a big deal it is. Ireland have won few enough Six Nations down the years, so we can’t really turn our noses up at them.
Besides, sticking all your chips on a tournament that comes around once every four years is a barmy strategy. Stuart Lancaster has been pilloried for going on about 2019, so let’s not ourselves fall into the same trap. It’s worth remembering that Ireland are out of the tournament because they lost precisely one rugby match. Chances are we’ll have another quarter-final in four years time, but the idea of building a team with that one-off game in mind seems farcical. There are so many imponderables and most of the things that will drive the result; form, injuries, the weather, team morale, are influenced by the hours, days and weeks leading up to it. South Africa are in the semi-finals but they have arrived at their current selection and playing mid-tournament after a crisis-inducing loss to Japan in their first game. So much for forward planning.
It also has to be remembered that Ireland play most of their competitive games in November and February, when conditions often dictate a duller gameplan. The World Cup has been played largely on dry tracks, which has been a help to those more willing to run the ball, but in spring the matches are often played out on roly-poly pitches and in wind and rain. The first semi-final showed that sometimes the best teams need to play the conditions too. Ireland’s aerial bombardment was good enough to beat Australia last November. Ok, it wasn’t in a World Cup, but anyone who thinks Australia weren’t there to win needs to watch the tape again; it was a game of thrilling intensity.
Another argument seems to be that “at Leinster Schmidt had them playing just like Argentina did, why has he gone away from that?” A look at what’s going on in the provinces might be valuable at this point, just as it is to recall that at Leinster Schmidt had a midfield of Sexton, Darcy and O’Driscoll to work with, as well as a world-class offloader in the second row in Nathan Hines. But last year he’d have looked at Munster and Leinster playing pig-ugly one-out rugby without pause for breath. If the players are not able to pass or offload at provincial level, then what are the chances of getting them to do it at test level, where the space and time afforded are even less, and the pressure to execute even higher? It can’t just be turned on like a tap, and Gordon D’arcy’s articles, where he has explained that Irish players are coached from an early age to support the carrier by hitting the ruck rather than looking for the offload, have been some of the most instructive reading of the last month.
Ireland do need to develop their attacking game, no question. Perhaps we do not have ballers in the class of Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Michael Hooper or Nicolas Sanchez, but last we checked Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, among others, were all comfortable playing with the football. The skills are there, and we should look to trust them a little more. But there’s no need to throw – or should that be Garryowen? – the baby out with the bathwater.