Southern Hemisphere teams underline where the balance of power lies.
by Phil Rice
Despite a brave display by Scotland, there is no doubt that the Northern Hemisphere teams are falling behind.
It is difficult to mask the disappointment Irish rugby supporters feel this week. There was genuine optimism leading up to and during this World Cup and not without good cause. What a downer last Sunday’s match against Argentina turned out to be.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it is now clear that Argentina are a far better team than France. They have a brutally effective pack with excellent half backs and genuine match winners out wide. France were destroyed by New Zealand last Saturday in every facet of the game.
Ireland approached the French game the previous week, believing that victory against ‘Les Bleus’ would be the main hurdle between them and a place in the semi-finals. After losing four of our key players in that attritional battle we were in no place to handle a side of the quality of Argentina.
The Pumas focussed on the Ireland match in the same way as we approached France, total commitment from the kick-off. After seven minutes we were shellshocked and found ourselves chasing the game. To the teams eternal credit they fought back from a 17-point deficit to almost level matters but that effort combined with the scars and exhaustion from the previous week, left them unable to handle the Pumas final assault.
Joe Schmidt said after the game, “In the 58th minute, when we got as close as we did, I just felt if we could have got in front I think it might have given us the confidence to kick on. There were a few guys who were out on their feet.”
To his credit at no stage did Schmidt use the loss of key players through injury as an excuse but to observers it appeared clear that the team lacked direction and leadership. This was particularly evident when Argentina took the game by the scruff of the neck for the first 20 minutes. Jamie Heaslip gave his all but he is not an inspirational captain in the mould of Paul O’Connell, few are. Ian Madigan had a fine game but as yet he is not a director of back play to the standard of Johnny Sexton.
Our back-row fought tirelessly but they lacked the defensive qualities and ball carrying strengths of Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. We will never know the impact that these absentees might have had on the match but what we do know is that Ireland have failed to break the glass ceiling that is preventing us from progressing past the quarter-finals. Throughout the build-up to the event Schmidt kept reiterating that the semi final was our goal and once at that stage anything could happen.
In that context Ireland has failed to reach expectations. However when the dust settles we need to keep things in perspective.
Since Schmidt has taken charge of Ireland we have been the undisputed champions of the Northern Hemisphere. In order to compete on the world stage we clearly need to step up our level of performance.
By Schmidt’s own admission his game plan has been limited, but those limitations have not prevented us from winning the Six Nations. What we have now discovered is the gulf between North and South has widened and to compete successfully against the Championship sides we need to expand our game plan.
In our Six Nations match against Wales earlier this year Warren Gatland pointed out the deficiencies in the Irish approach. “Your attack is too narrow and too easily defended against”. We don’t employ off-loading and as a result our attacks are disjointed and dependant on speedy recycling of the ball from rucks.
Scotland demonstrated last Saturday, with their limited resources, how difficult it is to defend against a team prepared to support closely and to off-load in contact.
The All Blacks gave a masterclass against France in how to attack in numbers and how to keep the ball alive. The French defence had no time to reorganise and overlaps were created as a result.
Ireland need to adopt a more expansive strategy. The encouraging signs are that quality players are emerging through the provincial set-up.
Iain Henderson, Jack McGrath and Robbie Henshaw came of age during this World Cup. The feeling that the “golden age” of Irish rugby is in decline with the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and other stalwarts, is not the case. The future can be bright for our national team provided a more expansive approach is taken to our game plan.
Argentinian rugby has improved beyond measure, it had to in order to meet the demands of competing against the Championship sides. In the build up to England’s successful World Cup in 2003, Clive Woodward played multiple matches against the Southern Hemisphere giants. His team began to adopt a winning style against these teams and an inner belief that they could compete successfully against them.
Ireland will have a three match series against South Africa at the end of this season. We should focus on building a team who can compete in those matches, with a more expansive game plan that challenges the opposition on a broader front.
Schmidt is an intelligent coach who will learn from this World Cup’s experiences. He should be retained as Coach through the next four years so that we can address the deficiencies we have demonstrated this time around and approach 2019 in better shape.
Watch/Listen to Irish fans at the Millenium Stadium during the France v New Zealand match – The Fields of Anthenry.