By Phil Rice
It is hard to believe that prior to Ireland’s humiliating defeat at Twickenham last weekend, Joe Schmidt’s team were one victory away from becoming number one in the world rankings.
This anomaly reflects the vagaries of the rankings rather than any brilliance in Ireland’s recent performances.
It seems that the world’s leading rugby nations operate on a four-year cycle, with the intent to peak during World Cup years.
Ireland on the other hand appear to peak counter-cyclically, choosing to dip in performance during World Cup years.
While this may sound somewhat cynical the evidence for this theory is all too clear.
There may have been some mitigating circumstances for the team’s annihilation by England, but performances during 2019 have borne no resemblance to the outstanding form shown by Ireland less than a year ago.
It was difficult to believe that only 15 months ago Ireland trounced the same opponents at the same venue when they deservedly won the Grand Slam.
Wind forward to Saturday and with the majority of the same players involved for both sides, Ireland subsided in abject humiliation.
Going into last Saturday, a mauling by England was the worst possible scenario for Schmidt at this time, but no-one could have predicted such a one-sided encounter.
There was no evidence of leadership on the field. The captain, Rory Best, had one of his worst performances for his country – undermining the team’s efforts by giving a display of line out throwing that would have shamed a club’s third team hooker.
With the exception of Josh van der Flier, who tackled his heart out, the Irish back-row was totally anonymous. CJ Stander has under-performed for over a year.
His trademark lung-busting runs at opponents a long forgotten trait. Jack Conan must be wondering what he has to do to be given an opportunity.
Pack leader Peter O’Mahony has been a shadow of his former self throughout 2019. Rhys Ruddock has been out-performing him consistently since the turn of the year.
The Leinster pack leader has also demonstrated genuine leadership qualities when given the opportunity.
Schmidt won’t want to make knee-jerk reactions so close to the World Cup, but will need to address the consistent failings of some of his frontline players.
He has invested considerable time and effort in developing his back up players and surely the time has come to filter some of these talented personnel into his team.
Having said that, the experiment of giving Jean Kleyn and Ross Byrne game time last Saturday seemed ill-timed. Neither has really been knocking on the international door.
Perhaps Tadhg Beirne and Jack Carty would have been better options as their recent form has looked far more impressive.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 27, 2019
Jacob Stockdale is possibly Ireland’s greatest scoring threat but sadly his defensive efforts have fallen far short of requirements. His ill-timed rush defence allowed England the space to walk in for their first two tries.
Defence coach and head coach designate, Andy Farrell, must have had a sleepless night on Saturday after the abject tackling performance of his team. Thirty-four missed tackles would be excessive during an international year, never mind one game.
Schmidt looked shocked and embarrassed after Saturday’s performance. He is a dedicated coach who has done an enormous amount to lift Irish rugby to the elevated heights it has reached in recent years.
He didn’t deserve this slap in the face. He will no doubt redouble his efforts to rebuild his team for this weekend’s vital game against Wales in Cardiff.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 27, 2019
This week will be all about re-establishing confidence in his team. While they don’t suddenly become bad players, there has been considerable recent evidence of a fall-off in standards of some of the stars of 2018.
Schmidt has the difficult task of deciding who needs replacing at this stage and who needs inspiring to regain their previous levels of performance.
The coach has two games against Grand Slam holders, Wales, in which to turn around the team’s fortunes. It will be no mean task if he succeeds in achieving this objective.
Scotland managed to reverse their mauling by France the previous week, at the weekend and Ireland will need to have a similar transformation, otherwise they will be staring at the prospect of an embarrassing reversal in their first outing of the World Cup.