Group of Dearth

The latter stages of the World Cup have started to take shape as the pools head towards their denouement with only the BNZ pool more or less sorted. In that pool, the standard of rugby has been strong, with BNZ creaking in the second quarter but putting in one of the best 20 minutes of football seen yet in their opening game with Argentina. The Pumas, for their part, have looked invigorated after four years of the Championship – in previous World Cups they have looked like a Northern Hemisphere team, full of forward power and strong kicking games, but here they look like a combination of South African forwards and Australian backs. And, speaking of huge forwards, Georgia have been cowed by no-one and the sight of their brutish pack staring bemused at the haka was one for the ages – we couldn’t think of a team less likely to be intimidated. Gorgodzilla has been a force of nature, and his emotional response to being named MOTM * on Friday night was what the development of Tier 2 rugby should be about.

Here in Ireland we have never quite got to grips with the concept that the pool stages of the world cup are for the most part a warm up exercise, and that the real business starts in the quarter finals.  In all except the freakish Pool of Death, the two teams coming out of each pool have been flagged well in advance, and so – even with South Africa’s early abberation – everything has panned out as expected.  The only thing down for decision in the vast majority of world cup pools dating back to whenever, is the fight between first and second, which isn’t always of great consequence.  In 2011, Ireland placed too much importance on having beaten Australia in the pool.  It was a fine performance and tactically shrewd, but ultimately immaterial.  In the quarter finals, when winning really mattered, Ireland fluffed their lines and Australia, who had come second in the pool, advanced to the semi-finals.

The only pool with no teams yet qualified (mathematically anyway) is the South Africa one. In reality, the Springboks are home and hosed – the defeat against Japan woke the squad up, and with Meyer privately briefing against Jean de Villiers’ twin for crimes against the gameplan in that defeat, the defeat and the captain’s injury has allowed Meyer to let yoof have its fling. Damian de Allende and the ginormous Lood de Jager have come in for JdV and Victor Matfield – the physical comparison with Scotland seemed unfair at times, and their pure beastliness will take them far but the team still feels a little callow at this point. Even if Wales lose to the Wobs, as seems likely, they might fancy a cut off these Boks. Second place will come down to Samoa-Scotland – if the Scots win, they are through, if Samoa win Japan will get through with a bonus point win against the USA. Whatever about (largely made-up) Celtic brotherhood, we for one will be cheering heartily for Samoa on Saturday.  But with Samoa a disorganised shambles, the Scots should coast into the quarter finals.

In the Pool of Death, England have had the huge misfortune to come up against two of the best coaches in the world coaching intelligent and focused teams, at just the wrong time. Australia followed up on Wales’ triumph with a scintillating display of scrummaging, backrow brilliance and creativity out wide – England’s props were taken out of the firing line before the hour mark! We’ll have a scapegoat watch on England later in the week, but few would have lived with the Wobblies on Saturday night. Fiji were also hotly tipped to cause an upset of one of the big three – in the event, they didn’t really come close, with just too much inaccuracy against good teams, but man they can play when they want to.

And what then of Ireland’s pool? The only one without any Southern Hemisphere skill or Pacific Island magic has largely stunk the tournament out, to be frank. The pool has been peppered with low standard and forgettable games, with Ireland-Italy merely being the latest – all three French games have been desperately poor quality. Canada have brought some of the effervescent Tier 2 buzz that have characterised the tournament, to be fair. The pool carries a faint whiff of the English pool in the last tournament – chock full of European teams (and Argentina in their previous Northern Hemisphere iteration) – the pool was defined by forward power and was eminently forgettable, barring the amusing off-field tales concerning the England players. When it came to the knockouts, both Argentina and England were dumped out without too much bother – and they weren’t lamented.

The nagging worry at this point is that the general lack of inspiration present proves fatal to Ireland and France in the next round when they will be abruptly exposed to high class rugby, with New Zealand and Argentina waiting, probably two of the best three sides to this point.

The Italian game at the weekend was, by some distance, the worst performance of the Joe Schmidt era – this is a very limited Italian side, yet Ireland somehow managed to make Simone Favaro and Edoardo Gori look like Schalk Burger and Aaron Smith. Schmidt’s success has been built on forcing mistakes from opponents through an extremely accurate kicking game, intelligent rucking and watertight defence – all three elements were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Italy’s inability to run a lineout (and O’Mahony’s defensive excellence – he may have been called Ireland’s Bakkies Botha last week (!) but could Bakkies have made that tackle? I don’t think so) today’s conversation would be very different, and much more fraught.

Expect the usual commentary about us playing badly being a good thing because <cup rugby> and <complacency>. In truth, cup rugby doesn’t involve kicking the ball away and hanging on by your fingertips, and you’d have thought that three games into a World Cup, we wouldn’t need a reminder of what is at stake. But there is good news – the expected return of Jared Payne and Bob will beef up our defence and kicking game, and it pretty tough to see Conor Murray playing this badly again. The lack of form shown so far this year by Sexton and O’Brien is a concerning issue – and while Schmidt might be tempted to turn to Chris Henry, we urgently need Sexton to show some of his best form.

Another positive is that this France team thrive on one thing and one thing only – beef in the tight. The set piece has been a continual strength, even against Italy, and that is unlikely to change. If our rucking work improves and our defence is a little less passive, we have it well within our werewithall to keep them out – add in how vulnerable they looked to DTH van der Merwe, and you might just expect the likes of Earls to look threatening .. if Ireland manage to get the ball to him. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if Ireland tighten up on the basics, they will beat an unstructured and poorly-coached France team, and that’s what they should concentrate on. Forget not knowing which French side will show up, let’s worry about ensuring the correct Ireland side show up – the one which kicks and rucks well.

* This being the first RWC in the mass social media era has been both good and bad – it’s been good for the fans worldwide who can now read the likes of Dorce and Charlie Morgan, whose forensic brilliance has been brought global by new meeja. The bad: the nonsensical MOTM system. Around the 50 minute mark of every game, a WR gnome nominates three players who are then voted upon by ver people. This horseshit system got the result it deserved on Saturday night, when Joe Launchbury was named MOTM in the aftermath of one of the great World Cup performances … by his opponents. Gorgodzilla is a rare exception.

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  1. Yossarian

     /  October 6, 2015

    I thought the back row en masse were poor at the weekend. Towering displays from our second rows saved us. Henderson was brilliant-the idea of “impact sub” seems so daft now when you see him make that impact from the start.
    We play some awful rugby, as in we don’t look to play much rugby. When it goes awry it is even worse. I hoped we would build on what we saw vs Scotland when it mattered in the 6 nations and against Romania/Canada. Sadly we reverted to the kick chase.
    we seem flat as we have been in previous world cups. The very real possibility of losing to france, losing to nz is looming large.
    Our lineout maul is not making a dent, our defence is narrow and line speed is passive, our breakdown is poor. all things we normally do well. hopefully a one off as all are pretty correctable or else Sunday will be some anticlimax.

    • Fair point on the back row. The consensus has been that SOB and Heaslip were poor (and they were) but that POM was triminjus. Unfortunately Uncle Joe calling out two pieces of POM stupidity as examples of indiscipline rather gives the lie to that.

      “There were some really poor penalties from us against Italy. If you grab someone in the air in the lineout you know you’re going to be penalised. You can’t do it. If you don’t use your arms – both of them – when going in to clean someone out then you are liable for sanction.”

      The management are damned if they do damned if they don’t now. Do they stick with the awful backrow from the weekend – in which case if they lose they look like eejits – or do they twist and bring in Toner for POM & Henry for SOB – in which case if they lose they look like Kidney.

      The thing that really worries me is that most of the analysis ahead of the France match – here and in the print mejia – is not analysis at all, it’s religion: ” can’t be that bad again”, or “we have some magic tricks up our sleeve, don’t we Joe?” or “France are pants anyway.”

      It’s frighteningly reminiscent of last week’s Guardian poll of rugby writers as to who would win in the England-Australia game: almost every single one (Ted Henry asides, who was also wrong but at least had an actual reason – place kicking – for picking England) said England because they “had to” or because it was “inconceivable” that they would lose.

      The facts are as follows:
      (1) We haven’t played really well since the first Wales match, 6 games ago.
      (2) France tend to overperform at world cups, Ireland to underperform.
      (3) The French may be the hipster’s South Africa, brutal and unlovable but with a wafer-thin patina of élan, but they are in far better shape (physically and in terms of little details like not hating their coach’s guts) than 4 years ago, when only a bottling referee stopped them winning the tournament outright.

      I really hope I’m wrong, but I know where the smart money will be placed.

    • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

       /  October 6, 2015

      Scrape past France, lose badly to Argentina looming not far behind!

    • SportingBench

       /  October 6, 2015

      I thought it was interesting with Henderson that Italy clearly had a plan for him to go low and try and chop tackle to avoid him carrying on a couple of meters past the tackle but he seemed to realise this and adjust and get the legs pumping showing that a chop tackle is a difficult/gutsy thing to do on a charging llama.

  2. curates_egg

     /  October 6, 2015

    Your take on Ireland’s prospects and progress in the run-up to and during this world cup has been interesting to follow. Despite the fact that, at no point, have we looked like we were playing well as a team, you have tended to churn out the establishment line that all is well and we are just saving ourselves for the France game. I would kind of expect that from Dexys but not from you guys.

    The reality is that we have looked very unconvincing for quite a while and, while maybe there is some magic up some sleeve, there is no evidence or foundation for any willd optimism based on our performances. All these claims that we are saving our plays are getting a little hard to swallow…but I guess we really will know more at the weekend.

    You have also maintained that France are garbage and it is basically a foregone conclusion we will beat them. That smacks of hubris to me. Ignoring decades of them being better than us, even in the recent past, we have only just scraped by. We struggled past them in Landsdowne Road in February; they should have beaten us in Paris the year before. Why should we be reassured that our playing muck is part of the plan and not theirs?

    When I look at our quarter final opponents, it is with even less optimism. Should we beat France, Argentina look better than us. They have a good set piece and some good breakdown artists. Their centres are better (Hernandez is a class above anything we have) and they have much more pace out wide. They also have a world cup winning coach.

    Also: what happened to our maul? That was about the main thing we could rely on and it is gone.

    • John Plumtree went away, thats what happened to our maul.

      • curates_egg

         /  October 6, 2015

        Leinster’s maul went to pot after Jonno Gibbes left. It is ridiculous that performance in core areas is so reliant on a single coach. How come a structure was not put in place? How can the same playing group not ensure continuity? If Easterby can’t coach the maul, can we not get someone in who can coach this crucial element of our gameplan?

    • curates_egg

       /  October 6, 2015

      Should’ve been “have had” in reference to Henry. Anyway, point holds: Argentina look much better than us. Haven’t seen Hernandez playing this well since he made a joke of us in 2007. If we are keeping something hidden, we are doing a brilliant job.

  3. Ed Burke

     /  October 6, 2015

    Just been thinking reading this, Tonga might not be in next world cup. If all 3 islanders finish 4th in their group this year, none will qualify automatically for next tournament. Oceania only gets 1 qualifying spot (say Fiji take it) leaving Samoa to clean up in the repechage. Hong Kong and Russia could benefit from freed up spot in their qualifying route caused by Japan and Georgia qualifying automatically also. Unless they change the qualifying system of course

    • Ciaran

       /  October 6, 2015

      Oceania gets 5 qualifying spots. 4 of them were taken automatically this time. Only 2 will next time (NZ and Australia). All three islands can, and almost certainly will, qualify.

  4. So Earls on the wing, then who gets sacrificed to the rabid screams of provincial bias?

    • Toss up between Kearney and Bowe for right wing I’d say.

      • Bowe might just edge it – he’s been improving with each game he’s played. But then, that might just be my provincial bias showing…

        • I’d go with Earls and Bowe too – nice balance between power/aerial ability and raw pace/finishing. Average Dave has done nothing wrong but I just don’t see him making the difference when the chips are down.

          • connachtexile

             /  October 6, 2015

            I’d go for average Dave and Earls as they are actually showing top form unlike Bowe who is just clawing himself back to anything resembling were he is as a top player.

          • Or maybe Average Dave and Bowe – Murray Kinsella’s analysis highlights 2 forced offloads from Earls that led to turnovers. Who knows?

      • SportingBench

         /  October 6, 2015

        Watching Ireland on Sunday, I had a horrible feeling I was back in 2007. There was the same sense of good players just being very flat and almost drained of energy. Murray, generally a world class player, was so far off his game that you could even see Bowe stare in disbelief at one point when he put up yet another box kick too far ahead with no chasers in position. Perhaps it was complacency or playing too much to numbers but there didn’t seem a lot of thinking or game management out there with a few exceptions. The bright sparks were however that some of the younger players did seem to be the ones who avoided the malaise and Sexton showed good resilience to eventually react and see the game out, even putting an end to the nonsense of playing on after the 80 in an effort to score a silly window dressing try. I particularly loved the bit where Henderson clearly decided enough was enough and went looking for a poor Italian to bear hug.
        So what does this mean? Well, unlike 2007 we do have proven depth the question is whether Joe does have a team of untouchables or not. We’ll find out over the next two weeks I suppose. Firstly, I expect Murray to start but we’ll not win against France if he plays as badly and is not replaced early by Reddan. I have never been a big fan of Earls but in this WC he has been sparky and definitely gets a place, probably on the wing if Payne is back. Bowe has shown enough in the last two weeks to get the other wing too.
        The biggest calls are in the pack though. I’m not sure O’Brien has ever fully regained form since his shoulder injuries and once again gave away silly kickable penalties. We need Henderson in the team and given there is a thought that Toner must also be in the team for the lineout and the maul, POC is un-droppable as the one player who always raises his game when needed and Leinster Lion believes POM is a 7 anyway. So I think Hendo goes in the back row at 6 with POM moving to 7 at SOB’s expense. “On his day” SOB is world class but the judgement has to be if the day is Sunday or not and the evidence so far is more likely not.
        I doubt Joe will make the call, SOB will have a blinder, else I am posting this again next week!

        • I thought since we started the Joe Schmidt reign the backrow with the best balance was POM, Henry and Heaslip. I’d wouldn’t be adverse to seeing it again.

          • Jimbob

             /  October 6, 2015

            I think so too. POM and Henry dovetailed excellently back in 2014 6N.

          • flypanam

             /  October 6, 2015

            I’d rather see SO’B at 6, Henry at 7 and Heaslip at 8. With PO’M covering 6/8.

          • Leave POM out for SOB and you’ve cut yourself to 2 specialist jumpers and the lineout – our one big strength last w/e – is in danger. If you’re leaving POM out it would be for Toner with Henderson at 6.

        • Spikes

           /  October 6, 2015

          Shared your feelings about 2007, this started to feel like Georgia again, down to the POM pulling a Leamy and narrowly preventing the try that would have given them the lead. Other than against Australia (’91/’03/’11) we struggle to put together performances at World Cups, but hopefully that will change this weekend. Win or lose, I’d like to see a talented and well-coached team do themselves justice.

  5. I don’t know if it was just me but there was a tremendous amount of reaction policing on Twitter after the game. Some from English people, perhaps understandably, saying at least we were in the quarters, and some from other Irish fans of the “all we need to do to win this thing is believe” school. Anyone who isn’t a bit worried after Sunday was watching a different game to me, or perhaps participating in the Mexican wave. I don’t like the idea that the only way to support is through unquestioning devotion, or that realistic criticisms are considered as having a negative attitude.

    • Someone touched on it in an article I read on the that from every other country when the team plays badly its a “poor performance” when Ireland play badly its part of Joe’s “masterplan” to outwit the next week opposition. I do agree there is a lot of “but hey we get results” going around these days. Commenting that we play some terribly boring stuff in some matches is similarly met with scorn.

  6. Hairy Naomh Mhuire

     /  October 6, 2015

    I know Whiff touched on it but I was really struck by how less assured we looked without Rob Kearney on Sunday. He’s probably second only to Jamie in terms of the “he’s soooo over-rated” nonsense and I think his absence demonstrated how much he brings to this team – particularly since the departure of our two centre stalwarts.

  7. I’m quite worried at this stage. As Curate’s Egg rightly pointed out, we only beat France in the last two Six Nations by the absolute skin of our teeth. I can’t see us getting that lucky a third time in a row. If we don’t man up in the pack, we will get seriously mashed. Even if we achieve parity in the forwards, I doubt our kicking game will be enough to win. As Canada showed, you can run in tries against France, but are our back line capable of stringing an impromptu series of end-to-end passes à la Argentina together? Thus far I have seen little evidence that would suggest this. We can only hope Joe come’s up with a good plan and the chosen 15/23 on the day are able to execute it.

  8. The weight of expectation is tough to carry. Ireland had a hard time playing against a team who were in full knock-out mode and who just wanted to stop them. The only bit that worries me is o’connell feeling the need to apologise. An apology is only necessary for me when you’ve wilfully done something wrong. To have to see robshaw apologise….it really, really annoyed me from this weekend. It was harrowing viewing. He figures high on scapegoat watch at the minute and whatever about the arguments of him as a 7, he had a totally impossible job.

    Scapegoat watch eh? Dylan Hartley was persevered with after problem after problem. Until he made himself unselectable for the start of the World Cup. Now the general vibe is that England should have took him. ‘We *needed* Dylan hartley.’ Maybe at that stage arguably yes – having kept him for so long -but it was a terrible decision to continually persist with him and ignore developing a different reliable lineout thrower and lieutenant. It’s not that dissimilar with tuilagi. Dean Ryan said at the weekend on Hartley….’in NZ they know how to keep people involved despite problems….they give you a chance, but they don’t give you a second chance.’ He was using this as an argument Hartley should have been in the squad! How many chances did the fella get?!

    I wish robshaw was one of ours. He probably made a mistake on the lineout call, but he is someone England rugby supporters should be proud of. I’d be continuing to build a team with him at the core and if I were in Conor o’shea’s shoes I wouldn’t be off the phone to him or out of his house at the minute giving him support. As for O’Connell apologising – he needs to catch himself on too. I don’t want him burdened by eejits like me! Care less about us supporters and more about doing the business. This Irish public have incredible goodwill towards this team and for good reason. To a man they are brilliant representatives of us and for us. As a hurling aficionado friend of mine said after watching an unbelievable game of Gaelic football….says I – that was some game, says he – ‘paddyo, it was nearly as good as watching a game of hurling.’ That’s this Irish rugby team right now. I’m about as proud of them as hurling. Although (imagines Michael bent photo shoot) it doesn’t work when they’re combined. And – win or lose – that respect won’t change, for me anyway.

    Ps: it’s a bit early in this week to be this psyched up, but one negative- what’s the Craic with the ‘5 things we….’ Pieces lads. Don’t tell me you’re going mainstream man! Hard to keep those hipster roots! 🙂

    • Spikes

       /  October 6, 2015

      Cue the “Top ten reasons we’re not going mainstream, click here to start the slideshow” piece

    • SportingBench

       /  October 6, 2015

      Jeasusss Paddyo, you seem as pumped up as POM is before a game! 🙂

      • Name that tune, hipsters:

        “I did ’em like a demo, threw ’em out the window
        I took a 98 ’cause I never liked a limo
        But pump pump pump pu-pump pump it up
        A mad rhyme for mad times, that’s what’s up”

  9. I watched BNZ V Argentina game at Wembley and the dire effort at The Olympic stadium on Sunday.
    Perfect playing conditions for both games but the comparison ends there.,

    On Sunday Ireland were death by “100” poorly directed box kicks – overdone and now
    has become too predictable.
    SOB looked we miss the retired David Wallace . Versus France would go with POC, Ryan, Hendo 6,POM 7 and Heaslip. With Henry and Toner on Bench.

    Most of the commentators have kept the cliches ticking over since Sunday -” Ireland needed that match” or “got a poor show of thier system”.
    “Sure it will be alright against the French” – no it will not. I have been watching us v them
    since 1960 and I expect a traditional result. France by 10-14. I hope that I am wrong

    As far as England are concerned if they do not implode and accept that it was the toughest
    group then they could win the next 6 nations grand slam.

    Why not ? . remember Wales 2007 and then 4 months later Grand slam winners.

  10. Mary Hinge

     /  October 6, 2015

    O’Brien will be very lucky to hold his place after that dire effort. I’d go for POC/Toner in the 2nd row, with Henderson at 6, POM at 7, Heaslip at 8, with O’Brien and Henry on the bench.

  11. It was worrying to say the least that we made an Italian side that should have lost to Canada look like an Argentina (current iteration). I’m not sure I buy the line that, “oh all this was a smokescreen for the French – We can’t very well be showing them our aces now can we?” France have stank the joint out and yet put 32 points on this Italy side. I must also say I got the whiff (excuse the pun!) of ‘6-Nations-opener-at-Croker/Aviva’ off this game. It was flatter than a pre-Copernican Earth. That’s not to fault Italy, who went out with a simple game plan: stop us playing – which worked. The most concerning aspect was how little momentum we generated with ball in hand from the forwards. I lost count of the amount of times we were knocked back behind the gainline with some of our ‘marquee forwards’ (excuse the intrusion of GAA term!).
    France must be licking their lips because, if it’s one thing they don’t lack, it’s a bit of heft up top. Be just the game for them to click into gear. Like previous World Cups (’95, ’03 and ’07 come to mind).

  12. Troy Tempest

     /  October 6, 2015

    POM is lucky to be available for the France game – Michael Hooper got cited and banned for one game for an almost identical offence. The only difference seems to be that Hooper didn’t get binned.

  13. El Greco

     /  October 7, 2015

    Lots of talk about the backrow being bad, but it wasn’t as grim as I’ve been reading above. I thought Best, NWJMB and POM were exceptional, POM’s bêtises aside. No-one has mentioned that O’Connell looked…well….shot. His falling to the floor before contact to set up a ruck beggared belief. If I want proper steel against the Frenchies I think Henderson and Ryan in the 2nd row for me. On top of this, has the collective pack unit lost the ability to off-load, or in olde-style speak – “pass” – the football whether in the tackle or at all? Or are we seeking to use the modified Nuremberg defense that they’re only following orders?

    Our inability to see off a particularly limited Italian team does not bode well. However, it isn’t as gloomy as that. Earls has some spark back into him. Murray will not play as badly again, and Sexton will be able to impose himself more with the Murray uptick in front of him. If they don’t play as we know they can, I may have to watch the game on Sunday from behind my sofa and (to coin a Wardie-ism)…that’s a recipe waiting to happen.

  14. I think a lot of people had forgotten that Italy were also playing for a quarter final place and as such seemed to have saved their best for Ireland. In comparison Ireland played like a team trying not to get injured imo, which is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. There were a few times where Henshaw looked to take a knock but he should be ok for France and I for one am very glad about that. It didn’t help that Murray did over kick the ball, again possibly to protect himself – its not as if he’s not capable of running with the ball but he certainly wasn’t tempted against Italy.

    Admittedly Ireland underperformed, but despite Favaro’s attempt in the corner it never really felt like a game Ireland would lose, while Italy were pretty much playing at full capacity. I don’t know about the rest of the backrow but I thought POM looked really good, and as Kinsella has shown SOB was very busy without necessarily getting the rewards.

    I would be a bit concerned by the couple of players who got bumped – Ross for instance was handed off onto his rear at one point, but this could also be a byproduct of the last month of lukewarm ups and minnows. In a way I’m glad we had Italy to play before France as we needed someone to bring some physicality and shake the cobwebs off as preparation.

    I just really hope we have a better plan than allowing/forcing Sexton to tackle Basteraud all game like last six nations, as while it worked in our favour on that occasion its not exactly healthy.

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