On the Road Again

Experience is often

Experience is often “hard bitten”.

Ye’re not the first Irish team to bring disgrace on the nation and ye won’t be the last.

Who is reputed to have uttered those lines and in what circumstances? The answer a little later, my friends.

We have been here before. The Year was 2007. A World Cup on our doorsteps, a squad with minimal injuries and an abundance of confidence after success at national level in the 6 Nations (Triple Crown and 2nd place finish in the 6 Nations) and provincial success in Europe lodged in the memory bank (Munster with their initial European success in 2006). Eddie O’Sullivan was the Head Coach and alongside him were Niall O’Donovan, as Forwards Coach, Graham Steadman, Defence Coach, Mark Tainton, Kicking Coach, Mike McGurn, Fitness Coach and Mervyn Murphy, Video Analyst.

Ireland had lost the Six Nations in controversial circumstances. We played and beat Italy well in the Eternal City on the final Saturday, St Patrick’s Day, critically however with the early kick-off of 1.30 p.m and conceding a last minute try, in endeavouring to score our ninth try against an Italian team playing only for pride.

Unlike the extraordinary events of Saturday 21st March 2015, three hours later it was the French playing the Scots in Paris, with South African Craig Joubert as referee and Irishman Simon McDowell as TMO, who awarded the French a very invisible sixth try in the 80th minute to allow them to claim the Championship on points difference ahead of Ireland. (France won by 46-19 having required a 24 point differential).

We never suspected it on that wonderful St Patrick’s Day in 2007, but it was downhill from there for the rest of 2007 and there were some pretty terrible memories etched in Bordeaux and Paris during RWC 2007. However, it didn’t just start when we got to France, do you remember this:

Murrayfield Sat 11th Aug 2007: Scotland 31 Ireland 21 (5 tries to two for Scotland)

Ireland: Geordan Murphy; Brian Carney, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gavin Duffy, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Wallace, Isaac Boss; Bryan Young, Jerry Flannery, Simon Best, Paul O’Connell, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements used: Alan Quinlan for O’Kelly (9-12 mins, 24-33, half-time-59, blood sub), Andrew Trimble for Duffy (27), Keith Gleeson for Best (65), Ronan O’Gara for O’Driscoll (67), John Hayes for Young (71), Eoin Reddan for Boss, Rory Best for Flannery (both 75)

Scotland: Rory Lamont; Sean Lamont, Rob Dewey, Andrew Henderson, Simon Webster; Chris Paterson, Mike Blair; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Euan Murray, Nathan Hines, Jim Hamilton, Jason White (capt), Allister Hogg, Simon Taylor.

Replacements used: Kelly Brown for Taylor (39 mins), Fergus Thomson for Ford (40-44, blood sub), Craig Smith for Murray, Scott MacLeod for White (both 57), Nikki Walker for Dewey (61), Chris Cusiter for Blair, Dan Parks for Paterson (both 62), Ford for Hamilton (77)

The Mole has listed the teams from that encounter, our first warm-up game, to highlight the players who are still around and who will remind their respective colleagues of how fickle can be Lady Fortune. Assuming that Isaac Boss & Andrew Trimble get in, Ireland will have 7 out of 31 players, a very healthy 23%, to remind the Irish Squad of the importance of mindset. Those players won’t be alone. Needless to say, Joe Schmidt will have given this aspect considerable thought and will be watching around the world how other national head Coaches are dealing with the same challenge.

As we approach the key date of 31st August, by which time every country must name its 31-man World Cup squad, Ireland uniquely are the only team of the top fifteen in the world, who are unbeaten in their World Cup preparation period. Samoa suffered at the hands of New Zealand and the All Blacks went under to Australia, but both of these nations will be fairly satisfied with their preparations, notwithstanding these results.

This is probable not the case in England or Wales where coaches Lancaster and Gatland must be looking with some concern at the time left available for preparation and the tasks which have been uncovered.

So, here in Ireland what is the problem? That’s just it. What is the problem? Will Gatland’s Wales expose some critical weakness on Saturday? Will Ireland go to Twickenham on 5th September and be handed their heads on a platter? With Schmidt at the helm, neither of these possibilities appear likely prospects.

So, if we get past Twickenham on Saturday week, and facing the prospect of Canada and Romania as our first two RWC 2015 games, when will the Irish rugby public, or our Squad, really begin to experience the reality of Rugby World Cup 2015?

To provide some answer to that conundrum, let us revisit the question at the beginning. Supposedly, the originator of that most Irish of consolations was Axel Foley on the return of the Irish squad to Dublin in the last week of September 2007. In that typically Limerick idiom, Foley’s wry put-down served to commiserate, but not quite exonerate, anybody who had been part of the 2007 Squad. “Ye fu**ed up, but y’er not the only ones who’ve done that”.

During the course of less than 2 months from the beginning of August 2007 until the last weekend of September 2007, the Irish nation received its biggest sporting kick in the stomach since Saipan and the country was once again overcome by media exaggeration and speculation, led by our national broadcaster, which gyrated between conspiracy, complacency, or mere carelessness. Some of the comment was slanderous, some of it was ignorant, but the majority was just plain flummoxed.

Five years later, an excellent presentation in one of the Summer Schools postulated that the country had been well prepared for the crisis that was the Bank Guarantee of 30th September 2008, by the sporting events of Soccer World Cup 2002 and Rugby World Cup 2007. Both of these sporting disasters had proven that the Irish had a wonderful ability to exaggerate our expectations and an, almost British, appetite for expecting sporting success, where survival would be a more realistic achievement.

So what are the realistic prospects for Ireland in Rugby World Cup 2015?

It’s probably fair to say that we could scarcely have got a better draw. The composition of the four Pools are:

Pool A: Australia, England, Wales, Fiji, Uruguay

Pool B: South Africa, Samoa, Japan, Scotland, USA

Pool C: New Zealand, Argentina, Tonga, Georgia, Namibia

Pool D: France, Ireland, Italy, Canada, Romania

When you look at the order in which our Pool fixtures fall, Canada, Romania, Italy and France, it is hard to argue that Joe Schmidt could have done any better if he had been asked to arrange them himself. So, thus far, the odds are leaning a little in our favour. In years past, the Irish ambition in the Rugby World Cup has been to get out of our Pool. This we did in 2011 in New Zealand with a famous victory against Australia, only to trip up against old enemies Wales in the quarter-final.

This time around, the chiefs in the IRFU have talked themselves up to an (unrealistic) expectation of potential winners. At Mole Towers, we believe that Ireland can realistically plan to get to the Q/Final of the RWC and possibly, with Joe Schmidt in charge, a semi-final.

However, that is as far as we can go, under our own direction. We can go further, but now it takes luck, some screw-ups, or key injuries to opponents, or losses by higher-ranked teams. These are all factors outside of our control and that’s why we contend that Ireland cannot plan on these eventualities. We can however plan to take advantage of any such occurrences and no doubt this is exactly what Joe Schmidt and his team of coaches have been doing for the past 12 months.

Coaches:

Joe Schmidt:               Head Coach

Les Kiss:                     Asst & Defence Coach

Simon Easterby:          Forwards Coach

Greg Feek:                  Scrum Coach

Richie Murphy:           Kicking Coach

Jason Cowman            Fitness Coach

Mervyn Murphy          Video Analyst

Vinny Hammond        Performance Analyst

Michael Kearney         Team Manager

There are more highly professional persons, many more, in the background of this Irish team but these are the guys who have prepared the plan and will continue to do so until RWC 2015 is completed. Players and others will execute, but these are guys who will think and argue and orchestrate and ultimate deliver the plan for the players to perform.

The core elements of whichever plan they choose for each game have already been laid down and rehearsed. In their Pool games against Canada, Romania and Italy, this Irish team will:

  • play the majority of the game in their opponents half;
  • will retain more than 65% possession;
  • will dominate their opponents at scrum and line-outs;
  • will kick for goal from any penalty within range;
  • will miss very few tackles;
  • will push-up defensively with a very aggressive tackle-line;
  • will bring the ball back up-field from long kicks and look to counter-attack;
  • will attack from multiple phases within their opponents 22m area;
  • will use the lofted kick as a legitimate attacking option;
  • will off-load passes in the tackle, notably to inside supporters;
  • will be very disciplined at the breakdown and,
  • will concede less penalties than their opponents.

Against France, these tactics may not be either appropriate, or adequate, to beat their opponents. Looking at the French performances against England in the past fortnight, it is realistic to presume that the French will not face any tougher games until they face Ireland on Sunday October 11th in Cardiff. Ireland will therefore probably face a French pack (Debaty, Kayser, Slimani, Maestri, Pape) who will attempt to attack us at scrum and line-out and make the breakdown a war-zone with Picamoles, Dusautoir and LeRoux seeking revenge for successive 6 Nations defeats.

However, Ireland should have the advantage at half-back and in the back-three. Michelak is a flaky selection, but his personality will probably result in his selection once he has made the panel. Huget looks a great winger in possession, but not as defender. Spedding is big, but nowhere as good a reader of Sexton’s kicking game, as Kearney is of that of Michelak or Tales.

So the French game will be a cat and mouse affair – but with huge cats and mice playing! Joe Schmidt was reputedly originally hired by Leinster because of his experience in beating French teams. He has proved that ability during his five year love-affair with Irish rugby and there’s no reason to suppose he will stop now.

Earlier, we posed the question as to what problems the Irish Squad face at present. Joe Public or even the rugby media-heads like Thornley, O’Reilly or Fanning are hinting at injury worries about Cian Healy and Andrew Trimble. The Indo is speculating about the selection of the 3rd scrum-half. The Examiner is worried whether Zebo could be left out. If these are the depth of the real concerns within the Irish camp, Schmidt will be very grateful.

Thus far, neither unrealistic expectation nor excessive worry have fogged up the windscreen in the Team Ireland bus. The Irish management will however have planned for when either of these eventualities arise. As the last World Cup was in New Zealand, social media did not have the same impact because of the time differences. However, this time around, expect the social media impact to grow significantly. Here is Mole Towers we have a pretty selective participation but many of the younger generation warn us that trolls and others will exploit the international interest in a sports event of this magnitude.

As the avid Irish supporter looks out over the coming weeks, these are some of the key events and dates for the mental calendar:

Wed to Sunday 20th August: Will St Joe pick a team to beat Wales or to confirm his Squad?

Mon 31st August: How could he have left out Zebo / Luke / Trims / Felix / Jordi / Tommy  etc?

Thurs 3rd to Sun 6th Sept: Hope we don’t lose Henshaw / Paulie / Conor / Sexto / Cian against the Orcs.

Mon 7th to Thursday 17th Sept: Can’t believe the cost of trains between Birmingham / London / Bristol and Cardiff. We should have booked accommodation earlier.

Saturday 19th Sept:  I wonder why Joe selected Reddan / McGrath / Strauss / Cave etc for this game? Is A N Other / S O Else, injured / dropped / disciplined? etc

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6 thoughts on “On the Road Again

  1. Don’t forget that Dave Kearney has “torn up trees in training” to get himself into the squad and has positioned himself to knock Tommy Bowe off the plane to England (Gerry Thornley chapeau tip). Am I really reading in the paper of record that a two tour Lion Test starter and multicapped Irish international is going to be dropped on the basis of someone training really really well and making an inside break against a tiring Scottish side? Really? Sigh.

    I can’t wait for the games of the RWC but the media silly season has already hit a high level of annoyingness, if it gets higher I’m going to blackball the Irish media and stick to the Torygraph and their “well done you plucky Paddies” editorial slant which at least has the benefit of journos without any skin in the game. There is a strong and noble tradition in the Irish media to lament the role of “social media trolls” and “internet armchair pundits” on a regular basis, yet I’d wager that the likes of George Hook, Franno and Tony Ward have done more damage to the sanity of the Irish rugby supporter than a legion of internet trolls and chain emails.

    As for a potential RWC 15 meltdown? I think Joe has done what he can to address the issues that plagued 2007 ( I don’t feel the queasy alarm bells that were going off after the Italy warmup game in Ravenhill) and I think he has the brains to avoid the issues that undid us against Wales in 2011 (Give it to Seanie, Fez and Heaslip. If in doubt, ROG can run at their halfbacks. Nobody will expect that.) But if we somehow don’t do well and are knocked out at QF level I am sure that a series of experts will compile a fine list of retrospectively obvious failings which we can definitely get right for 2019.

    • Not only has he torn up trees in training, he was fantastic at the weekend against Wales, notably under the high ball. It would still be a surprise to see Tommy being left off the plane, but you cannot pick him based on his exploits with the Lions in 2013. Dave Kearney appears to be the form winger in the country right now, and in my mind he has to travel.

  2. Good piece, I think I read some cautious optimism in there somewhere. One thing (which you’re obviously aware of) is how much the possibility of playing NZ was being talked about a few months ago should we lose to France, and how it is mentioned less and less the closer we get to ‘le crunch’. Just part of the propaganda machine. Its a somewhat sickening feeling to know that both on paper and objectively this is the best Ireland team at a world cup yet, the most successful Ireland team (unless one is the mindset that grand slam trumps two championships), yet the likelihood of going out at quarter final is just as likely as ever.

    • There is a very real possibility of a massive pack milking enough penalties and a huget/bastaraud/fofanna wonder try undoing us in the group stages.We then put in a wonder performance losing to NZ but getting closer to them than anyone else they play on route to winning the World Cup.
      Ireland exit in quarters

      • Excessive worry there yossarian! Eh….. I hope anyway. I think we are as good as any of them, but the tricky bit is that you have to be better than them over 80 mins, at least 3 times. This may be stating a succession of obvious things, but to make a 1/4 final you have to beat Italy. That’s presuming that France beat Italy in the opening round. It’s worth being pretty ruthless if the chance arises to put a big score on the weaker teams just in case that doesnt happen, or if it did happen and you managed to lose to Italy but beat France. I know these permutations are unlikely but I’ve heard it said somewhere one time that the French rugby team are unpredictable.

        But most likely is – beat Italy and it’s quarter final time. Then it’s Argentina or New Zealand. When Argentinians tuck their children to bed at night they tell stories of heroic World Cup efforts. They’ve never won it of course, but their glorious World Cup failures seem a bit more glorious than ours, although I remember feeling particularly proud of the ’91 team in defeat. They just seem to be able to get it together for world cups and get into a decent mindset. Watching a bit of the rugby championship….they seem to me to be managing that trick pretty well again. I think they will give the kiwis their absolute fill of it and will be very, very annoying 1/4 final opponents for either Ireland or France. It’s fair to say New Zealand would also be a reasonably difficult draw, but from the 1/4 final on it is going to be a ding dust competition, arguably the most open World Cup ever, with perhaps only Scotland/Samoa being a bit out of their depth. I think we are as good as any of them, but even with that (what some will say is an overly optimistic) viewpoint: 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/8. That is to say you couldn’t say it was nailed on. And that is probably the equation just to make the final by avoiding New Zealand. Even I would find it hard to hand-on-heart call a game against New Zealand as 50-50, when we are winless in 100 years of trying, although with a full deck I do think this team could be the one to do it. But then I probably always think that. If your opinion is lower than mine and you think we aren’t quite as good as some of them and have been winning games and tournaments because joe Schmidt has extracted the absolute maximum out of this team, whilst other teams have been failing to fulfill their potential and that this advantage will be lessened at a World Cup, then the odds get worse from there.

        So for me the early requirements are: 1. take the horrible possibility of elimination on points difference off the table as much as possible by putting up good scores in each of the first two games.
        2.Beat Italy.
        That gets your foot in the door, one of England/wales/Australia won’t manage that much. After that, welcome to the reality of rwc 2015.

      • Like every other Irish rugby fan just before a WC I’m excited about the possibilities, and, (notwithstanding all the 2007 comparisons) I agree too that this is our best-ever team to travel to a WC. The fact it’s close to home is definitely a big bonus too. However, I wouldn’t be remotely optimistic about beating either France or Argentina. Okay, the later (very likely Argies 1/4F game) is a coin-toss. But they are one of the fastest improving teams in the world, used to the ultra-competitive environment of SH rugby. (is that traditional NH/SH gap closing, as some think? – we’ll know by October) As for the French, yes they are completely exasperating, unstructured, ill-disciplined, unpredictable, and (in 6Ns terms) massive underachievers.
        And Yes, we’ve beaten them last two 6Ns.
        But does anyone, seriously, think that counts for anything in a WC pool game? With their haughty sense of self regard, (and in fairness, like all the traditional “:Big 5” the French target the WC, much more than 6Ns.
        They may underachieve slightly at WC time too, ( 2 Finals being underachievemt in Franch terms, lucky them) but they do it in a completely different way no? They always have at least one massive, brilliant performance at WC time and they are the only one of the big 5, so far, not to have won it. Yet.
        It’s a shame their coaching structure is so abysmal they may not win it this time either. But things are changing. Crucially, unlike previous WCs, or every 6Ns, when they only meet up sporadically, (and exhausted, from their horrible league) this time they’ll have had weeks and weeks together to prepare. Forget the 6Ns. utterly meaningless. Expect a fresher, better, completely different type of French team.

        PS: In 2007 I interviewed Felipe Contrapomi for a small magazine (Lifestyle, Aug 2007 issue) and in the piece i basically predicted Argentina would beat France and Ireland in Pool. They did.
        PPS: If things go the way this grim, miserable nay-sayer predicts, (and nobody will be happier than me if I’m wrong and we beat France and get so Argentina instead of NZ) then it’s not a huge stretch to see Ireland “doing a France” That is to say coming second in our pool, getting a much rougher draw than oped, and having to face BNZ early in the comp.
        It’s also entirely possible we could then beat BNZ, (at last) but then (also a la France) be so elated and depleted that we loose the next game.

        You heard it here first. 🙂 Wonder what odds I can get on that scenario?

        -Arran.

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