England defeat Ireland by a record 57-15 making it Joe Schmidt’s worst day in the big job. But does it matter?
Reasons Not to Worry
It’s only a warm up game.
We have to be practical here; this result means little in terms of history. Yes, Ireland slip down a place in the world rankings, but those rankings do not really mean much to me.
The rankings are important when the pools for a World Cup are being selected. Ireland got a reasonably comfortable selection against Scotland and Japan based in part on our good standing, having climbed the rankings.
However, once the draw is made, those rankings cease to have any real meaning until four years later when they will be used again to pick the next tournament.
All we should be interested in is winning tournaments. Bearing England would not have helped us to do that one bit. This result can safely be dumped into the rubbish bin; the game against Scotland is all we should be focussed on.
England had More Preparation
England had an additional warm up game to Ireland and seemed to be in much better physical condition. Ireland chose to go to Portugal for warm weather training, hoping to acclimatise for the expected heat and humidity they will play in during the tournament.
That can be energy sapping stuff, and while it will be good for Ireland in a month’s time, it made them look like a team still in pre-season.
Ireland face the their biggest pool games on the first two weekends, while England have to wait until the third week before they meet tougher opposition. You could argue that the teams net at different points on their respective paths and we should not read too much into the result.
Don’t Peak Too Soon
It would have been foolish to empty the tank against England in a warm-up fixture and then not perform at the tournament itself.
We have seen Ireland flop at World Cups before. Problems with the way we prepared for those tournaments were identified and policies put in place to ensure that mistakes were not repeated.
The player welfare system, which limits the amount of club games that our international players take part in was born out of the wreckage of a poor showing in a World Cup.
The plans for this preparation window were drawn up long ago and beating England was never on the to-do list. Had we done so it would have meant that something was wrong, that we were in danger of peaking too soon.
It looks like England might be one of the teams to beat at this year’s competition, especially with New Zealand struggling to find the form that earned them the title four years ago.
So if we aspire to win the competition then we must beat England along the way, probably.
It should not take much to motivate an Irish team to play against our old enemy, such is the history between the countries, but coming off a record defeat may work as an extra sort of motivation should the teams meet in the knock out stages.
Narrowing the Squad
It is time for Joe Schmidt to start narrowing the squad. If there were players that getting a last chance to show what they can do in the game then it may be the perfect time to let them go, especially if they were unable to achieve their personal goals for the match.
Narrowing the squad down to the thirty-one can have a great effect on the players. Finally they don’t have to guess, fret and worry about every statement from the management, wondering if it is a veiled warning or designed to let them down softly.
They have made it once the squad is announced. Instead of fighting to get onto the aeroplane, they can start really preparing for the tournament, turning all their attention to what will happen in Japan and not the weeks beforehand.
A poor result against England is an opportunity to make some of those cuts. Players know that they have underperformed and the conversation, while not any easier, will not come as a surprise. A stronger, tighter squad will result.
Reasons to Worry
It’s not all good though. Let’s take a look at some of the things we should be wary of.
All of this has happened before
Ireland have had poor late Summer warm-up series in the past and they were harbingers for disastrous displays at the tournament itself. We ware running out of time to get these players up to operating temperature.
While there was no intention to challenge England in their own backyard, I suspect that Schmidt expected a lot more from certain individuals on Saturday.
Best could not get his line out working, the scrum creaked and groaned and coughed up points and territory, and there were defensive gaps everywhere.
Is this the sign of a team in disarray? The slow collapse from the great year that we had in 2018, with each game showing something else missing or lost. England thoroughly bullied us off the park again, looked clinical in attack and destroyed us at the break down area.
I am not a believer that momentum is a real thing, although you here players and coaches talk about it as if it were the golden ingredient, that intangible thing that good teams need to succeed.
Rather, momentum is what good teams generate. That is why they are good.
If Ireland are not good enough to win the World Cup, winning a few warm up games before the tournament to generate “momentum” is not going to hep one bit.
Having said that, not having a solid win under our collective belt going into the Scottish game (I am discounting the Italy game and worried about the back to back clashes with Wales), would be a major concern for me.
The lack of momentum has another word: inertia, the extra force required to overcome immobility. Can Ireland come out guns blazing against Scotland if they have not fired a single shot this late Summer?
Both Conor Murray and Cian Healy were slow to rise after their knocks. The scrum half had a head injury assessment and was able to return to play but the prop hobbled off under his own power.
An ankle injury was the reason for his departure and while the X-ray has not shown any issues, it will be a worrying few days while we wait to see how his recovery goes. Ireland’s first choice prop will be instrumental in the World Cup.
There will be plenty of bumps and bruises throughout the team that will need minor treatments over the next few days. It is one of the risks of playing international rugby.
Getting bodies up to test playing status means playing tough test matches. There is always a risk that in doing so injuries can creep in. Don’t forget that in the 2009 Six Nations tournament, the Grand Slam was won with practically no injuries on the Irish team.
To win a World Cup, you need to be able to field teams for seven straight weeks, sometimes with as few as five days in between. Injury is inevitable and squad rotation a must. But going without first choice prop or scrum half would be disastrous.
Lack of belief can be a real killer. Doing well in the tournament is not good enough. Many people think getting to a semi-final should be our target and aim. I think that’s not ambitious enough.
The final then? That would be nice, but just think how we’d feel if we got there, happy to rest on our laurels, and were turned over by dominant England or New Zealand (there is a chance of either, depending on respective finishing positions in the pool stages)?
The target should be to win the competition outright. Anything less should be seen as disappointing. But after a defeat like yesterday’s it is hard to see our team lifting the trophy, at least from the wider public and media point of view.
It depends on how the players themselves see the match. Will they treat it for what it was, a warm-up game of little real consequence? Or will they take it as a confidence killing defeat to a dominant team that they will dread meeting in the knock-out stages of the tournament proper?
The management and coaching staff has a key role to play here. Just as it is there job to keep the players’s feet on the ground after a few victories, they must not let the team wallow in the misery of a record defeat to England.
The Joe Schmidt Effect
Has Joe’s power faded this year? I think that is unlikely, but it is a concern. The New Zealander has been good to this country, both as Leinster coach and as the Ireland manager, he has brought the best out of the players under his control. But ever since the announcement that he would depart after the World Cup, one that was long expected, his words to the media do not seem to have the same power behind them.
While he has no job lined up just yet, there appears to be little doubt that he will one day manage the greatest rugby team in the world: his native New Zealand.
We shouldn’t doubt that he is still as passionate about his adopted country, but it is difficult not to think of him as having one foot out the door. It doesn’t matter what the public think; are the players still following him with the same enthusiasm as they did?
If not, then maybe that Joe Schmidt effect is waning a little. The good news is that there should be a smooth transition to the next manager. Time will tell if the combination of old and new manager can lead or guide this team, still the same brilliant team that had such a wonderful 2018, to their destiny at this World Cup.
I think they can do it. I think they can get over this one hiccup. It was forecast. It was predicted. Joe got his excuses in early, stating his worries all last week in press conferences. But the result was a lot worse than he had feared.
We need one good performance against Wales to banish these demons. Even should we lose, but play well, it will be something. The germ of an improvement. A sign that we are getting to match readiness. A sign that all will be well in Japan.