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IRFU will need to be brutally honest as World Cup review begins

The latest underperformance in the biggest competition in the sport leaves many questions.

AS AFTER EVERY World Cup, the IRFU will conduct a review into Ireland’s campaign at this tournament in Japan.

Clearly, the outcome at this World Cup has been a negative one, with Ireland failing to achieve the IRFU’s stated goal of reaching a first-ever semi-final.

The cold, hard truth is that Ireland were miles off reaching that target, with a comprehensive hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in last weekend’s quarter-final ending Joe Schmidt’s hopes of concluding his tenure with another bit of history.

rory-best-dejected-after-the-game Ireland's miserable World Cup record continued in Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Looking at the campaign overall, Ireland will have big regrets over their shock defeat to hosts Japan in the pool stages, which left them facing the unenviable task of taking on the world’s best team in the quarter-finals.

Japan deserve all the plaudits they have received for their performance against Ireland, amongst others, and we must respect how they earned their 19-12 victory in Shizuoka, but the IRFU review cannot gloss over the failings from Ireland in defeat.

Similarly to the All Blacks game, Ireland’s error count was deeply damaging as basic mistakes ensured a collapse after leading 12-3 early in that fixture.

Even in the 35-0 win over Russia, it appeared clear that this was not a confident and calm Ireland squad, with their error-strewn third quarter among the poorest passages they delivered under Schmidt.

The opening win over Scotland was excellent, to be fair, and Ireland seemed to have steadied themselves with a controlled bonus-point win over Samoa but the whole thing collapsed in the end against the All Blacks.

Beating the Kiwis would have been perhaps the greatest achievement in Schmidt’s time in charge but not to fire a single shot until the game was well over was utterly dispiriting for Ireland.

The IRFU will surely be the first to acknowledge that Schmidt’s time in charge of Ireland has been largely brilliant, with his team creating history and winning a Grand Slam, but this review will focus specifically on the World Cup and why it went so poorly. 

Unfortunately for Ireland supporters, these World Cup reviews are not published publicly for all to see. The IRFU treat the findings as sensitive information and instead our understanding of what has been learned will come through a media briefing with performance director David Nucifora, which may take place before the end of 2019.

Post-2015, the union decided that player depth was the most pressing issue to address. That came after Ireland lost five key players before the quarter-final defeat to Argentina, with Schmidt rueing the absence of his main leaders.

As a result, Nucifora began to initiate increased player movement between provinces – Joey Carbery to Munster being one example – while examining how the IRFU identified talent and making moves to begin to work closely with players at younger ages.

david-nucifora-richie-murphy-and-joe-schmidt Nucifora [left] was in Japan with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For this year’s review, the union will need to be brutally honest after yet another World Cup underperformance from Ireland. Clearly, some change is required.

This review must cover all bases – from how Schmidt and coaching staff prepared the players for the World Cup, how senior players on central contracts failed to deliver on the big occasion, and why less experienced players struggled to break through based on form.

The review into Ireland’s mental approach to this World Cup will be important, with Ireland’s players seemingly struggling to be clear-headed under the pressure of the biggest tournament in the game.

Style of play may be a consideration in the review. Is it time for the IRFU to clearly define how they want Irish rugby teams to play? Do the provinces need to buy into a specific philosophy? Can Irish rugby be innovative and tactically lead the way in the next four-year cycle, or do we simply see a continuation of what came up short at the World Cup?

Andy Farrell is the next man in as head coach, with Mike Catt coming on board as attack coach, John Fogarty joining as scrum coach, and forwards coach Simon Easterby and skills/kicking coach Richie Murphy continuing in their roles.

The Englishmen will be under pressure to get off to a strong start, but should the IRFU ease some of that heat by openly stating that they can accept mixed results at the beginning if the new coaching team is to really shake things up tactically and technically?

Even looking at Schmidt’s set-up, might Ireland have benefited from bringing in a coaching consultant at some point? Is there value in intermittently having an outside voice come in to question and query what has been the status quo? Would Ireland have benefited from shaking things up before the World Cup after a poor 2019 Six Nations?

andy-farrell Andy Farrell takes over from Joe Schmidt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The IRFU’s media policy may be worth considering in this review, with Schmidt possibly having invested too much negative energy into this area.

One-on-one interviews with players and coaches were abolished in recent years, while some players seemed to be increasingly concerned with ‘slipping up’ in front of the media rather than being open.

Of course, some in the public won’t care whether the media is given accurate injury information or ignored, while others will argue that the rugby media do a poor job.

The supporters, the real lifeblood of the sport, must be considered centrally in all of this. While Ireland have filled the Aviva Stadium regularly, tickets prices have made some fans turn away.

Some of the more casual sports fans in Ireland appear to have taken genuine pleasure at the latest World Cup failing for the rugby team and that’s worth considering too – why is there an active dislike for rugby in some quarters and can anything be done to ease it?

There are so many areas this review can touch on, and the hope is that everyone involved takes a humble approach to it and leaves egos at the door. 

Schmidt and his key players should be at the heart of understanding what went wrong, but the IRFU needs to look at itself too.

Is the pressure that appears to come with each Six Nations campaign conducive to improving for a World Cup further down the line? Is the IRFU doing enough to ensure players are coming from areas of Ireland beyond the superb schools system?

What future does the club game in Ireland have and can the IRFU rebuild the bridges that have very much been burned in that department? Many within the All-Ireland League feel like it has been cut adrift.

robbie-henshaw-dejected-after-the-game Ireland were left dejected in Japan. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It may not seem directly relevant to the national team underperforming at this World Cup but every part of Irish rugby contributes to the health of the national team.

There are no simple answers, of course, and this is a multi-layered and complex issue that is affected by factors within the Ireland squad and things at very different levels of the game.

Irish rugby is doing lots of things superbly and many aspects of the system in Ireland are envied by unions elsewhere. Winning a Grand Slam as recently as last year underlines that there has been plenty of good work done. 

But yet another poor World Cup campaign shows that there is still major room for improvement and the latest review needs to be brutally honest or the IRFU is wasting everyone’s time.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Tokyo

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