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'They went back to the conservative approach' - Nacewa on Schmidt's Ireland

The former Leinster captain feels the belief was sapped from Joe Schmidt’s squad in 2019.

THE MANNER IN which Ireland ran out of steam in his final year in charge will likely always haunt Joe Schmidt.

No one can question the work ethic of a man who reckons he never had a full day off in his six-and-a-half-year tenure as Ireland boss, but an extremely successful period in charge came to a shuddering halt in 2019.

Speaking on Will Greenwood’s Rugby Podcast for Sky Sports, former Leinster captain Isa Nacewa – the man who played a central part in Schmidt coming to Ireland in the first place – lamented this bitterly disappointing final chapter.  

joe-schmidt Joe Schmidt speaks to media at Dublin Airport yesterday. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

After suffering heavy defeats to England and Wales in the 2019 Six Nations, Ireland were hammered by the English again in the World Cup warm-ups, before a shock defeat to Japan in the pool stages of the World Cup and, finally, another shellacking at the hands of New Zealand in last weekend’s quarter-final.

The fall from grace after a stunning 2018 was remarkable. Ireland had won a Grand Slam, enjoyed a second-ever series success in Australia, and beaten the All Blacks in Dublin over the course of last year.

“They just never recovered from the heights they reached in 2018,” Nacewa told James Gemmell on Will Greenwood’s Rugby Podcast.

“It was eye-opening how far off the pace they were in that first Six Nations game against England when they downright got battered in Dublin.

“I think that was quite a telling story because they never really took a step up from that. The performances when they did win in 2019, in the lead-up to the World Cup weren’t great and then they got it handed to them in the warm-up match against England and that was a psychological blow to the Irish too.

“They just never managed to play the rugby they played in 2018 and that was the difference.”

Nacewa, who retired in 2018 after his second stint with Leinster, believes Ireland’s style of play contributed to their demise.

The one-time Fiji international felt that Ireland’s reliance on structure under Schmidt eventually became a weakness. 

“I definitely think it did,” said Nacewa. “In the 2017/18 season, once Leinster started playing an attacking brand of rugby and the majority of the Ireland squad was Leinster-based, they let a little bit of that Leinster flair infiltrate the Ireland camp.

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leinster-rugby-homecoming-parade-energia-park Nacewa is now back in New Zealand. Source: Niall Carson

“Joe started to go away from his tried-and-trusted drills and introduced a bit of what we call unstructured play, that came into Ireland camp in training and in the Six Nations they were throwing offloads, there was continuity to their play.

“That got them all the way to the top of the world and an unbeaten year with all the trophies.

“Post-that, I hear they actually went away from that and started to take it back out and went back to the conservative approach and that’s just shone through the whole World Cup and 2019.

“He went back to the tried-and-trusted of what worked for the last six years and I just don’t think they were expressive enough.

“They didn’t have the right ballplayers and the likes to play that flowing rugby that Johnny [Sexton] likes to play, likes to drive. They lost key players in certain positions and they just never got their flow on.”

Chief among those key players were back row stars Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien, who missed the World Cup through injury.

With those often talismanic figures absent and after big setbacks like the England game at the start of the Six Nations, Nacewa felt Ireland’s strong belief levels from 2018 slowly dissipated.

“It did feel that way,” he said. “In 2018, guys like James Ryan, Dan Leavy coming through… they missed Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien at the World Cup.

“It was the belief that they had, there was no fear no matter who they played. It didn’t matter if it was the All Blacks. A lot of those guys had never experienced any lows, some of them went through the entire 2017/18 season without ever losing a match.

“A lot of people said the only way from that position was down and the fact they had to take a couple of hard losses to learn the stark reality of professional rugby – that sort of came to fruition in a year that wasn’t the build-up to a World Cup they needed.”

- This article was updated at 12.21am on 24 October to correct ‘first-ever’ to ‘second-ever’ in the fifth paragraph.

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Murray Kinsella

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