So after the complete shambles that passed for a test rugby performance from Ireland last weekend in the face of a absolute pearler from England, where to now for the boys in green?
For the first time in a long while, Schmidt and Farrell have had it with both barrels from media, fans, and punters alike. Some have wondered if Schmidt is now running on empty – he’s burned out, he’s hit a wall, his exit was badly timed publicly, and his methods and game plans have been worked out by all and sundry. And Farrell is now not far behind in receiving brickbats with attacking lines seeming to run through Irish defensive lines at will, particularly last weekend.
It only seems like yesterday, well okay last November, that Ireland were riding high in the rugby world with their home win against New Zealand to follow up a Grand Slam and another series win in Australia, but like that old maxim goes – pride comes before a fall. They were wonderfully lacklustre in the Six Nations, rightly hammered by England and Wales, but not Scotland (tiny ray of hope), or France.
Their first RWC warm-up match featuring a mixum-gatherum of possible bench players who might squeeze onto the flight merely served to confirm who’d be returning to their province before very long. Jean Kleyn put in an understandable strong first cap performance, but Tadgh Beirne’s arrival and quick ruck steal pointed to a greater flexibility for the fourth lock slot after the seeming shoo-ins of Toner, Ryan and Henderson.
Kleyn got a second opportunity to showcase his skills in the English match and came up well short for confirming his inclusion in the RWC 31.
Meanwhile the back row and the backline are showing up lots of brittleness, lack of coherence, lots of missed tackles, and only about 70% of the required speed to get to the ball, and making ground once they had it. Stander or POM are not making the impact they used to. Watching the backline pass the ball wide to the wing – every pass telegraphed with time to spare – and Larmour or Stockdale (bar one occasion) get snuffled out was excruciating. No devil, no pace, no sleight of hand, clever angles, and what appeared to be a poor imitation of England’s tactics in kicking through in the hope of beating man to ball.
Ross Byrne, making his first start at 10, tried valiantly but got nowhere. He mightn’t know Aki that well, but he’s played often enough with Ringrose (the only decent player on the pitch) to have been able to engineer something like a scoring chance during the game. Carty gets the nod in the continuing absence of Sexton and Carbery.
Aki may have scored a good scamper’s try at the end, but he’s not floating my boat as the first choice 12, and I can only hope that Henshaw makes sufficient impact and added understanding with his Leinster partner at 10 and 13, to add some more devil to our attacking plays.
As for the back three, I’m not sure who I want to give kick up the arse more to – Stockdale or Larmour. But one or both of them is getting dropped to make way for Earls/Conway against Wales, with Addison waiting in the wings to wear the 23 shirt. Simon Zebo has been enjoying himself sending barbed tweets about whether Schmidt is missing him – a tactic that ensure there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of the Kiwi ever changing his mind.
Lastly, Schmidt’s biggest headache. His captain. He’s stuck with Rory Best – the most successful captain that Ireland has had in the professional era, but is Rory now subtracting from the team, rather than adding or at last holding his own? Sean Cronin is not a starter (and normally a great sub), so it’s time to look at Scannell or Herring as a just in case. He’ll probably pick Best for Cardiff and maybe switch to Scannell for the return match. Unless he wants to give Best his last test runout at Lansdowne.
Clearly, there’s a strong malaise that has enveloped the team, and at times, I wonder if Schmidt has lost the dressing room. If he has – temporarily – then the team owe it to him and themselves to get back on track. I don’t know what the planned line-up from Wales is for this weekend, but no doubt Gatland is stirring their juices and eagerness to put another nail in their celtic rival’s coffin before they even get to Japan.
Ireland have to dig deep within themselves, and find their own mojo – Schmidt or Farrell can’t do it for them at this stage. A strong, combative performance where the team shows that they still care about winning and acquitting themselves with pride – win or lose – at the Principality might just get the cart back on track. A win, and they might head to Lansdowne with something approaching confidence before they get on the plane.
Schmidt’s23 for this weekend:
- Dave Kilcoyne
- Niall Scannell
- John Ryan
- Iain Henderson
- James Ryan
- Tadgh Beirne
- Peter O’Mahony (C)
- Jack Conan
- Kieran Marmion
- Jack Carty
- Jacob Stockdale
- Bundee Aki
- Chris Farrell
- Andrew Conway
- Will Addison
Reps: Rory Best, Andrew Porter, Tadgh Furlong, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Dave Kearney