On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.
A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team. ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet. They don’t shout at each other. They don’t need to.’
No surprise there. If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring. If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown. No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.
So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game. Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no. ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie. ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.
Superb leadership. In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).
It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven. Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense. It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver. Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it. One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular. The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it. It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.
It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.
A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:
At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.
The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.
But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.
One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.