Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Opinion
Ghosts of '07 threaten to haunt as Ireland struggle for fluency
Joe Schmidt must get his team primed for a difficult contest with Canada in two weeks’ time.

NOT TO BE the bearer of bad news, but the back-to-back Six Nations champions have not yet come anywhere close to applying their spring form to these early summer months of the season.

It should go without saying (but here it is anyway) that Rugby World Cup warm-ups don’t really count for much once you’re 24 hours removed from the final whistle.

What they do achieve is in giving a barometer of how a squad is shaping up. It’s not always the most accurate of measures, but it’s still well worth taking heed of.

In 2011, Ireland lost all four games before packing up for New Zealand and went on to have a decent World Cup. Behind the results, there were huge positives to take from within performances – particularly the two games against a French outfit that, until then, were a still a mental roadblock for green-clad men.

We hate to mention 2007, because it’s among the worst rugby memories buried in our subconscious, but personally this is ominously reminiscent of that build-up.

A disappointed Paul O'Connell 21/9/2007 Billy Stickland / INPHO O'Connell is maintaining his high standards in the warm-ups, but as a unit Ireland are not pulling in the same direction. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

In hindsight the problems of ’07 were all too obvious in the games that were supposed to prepare Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad. Ireland were ‘undercooked,’ over-trained, under-stimulated, not ready and not up to speed. When Ronan O’Gara’s last-gasp try prevented a defeat to Italy in Ravenhill we all thought: ‘just a warm-up,’ ‘a win is a win.’ ‘Move on to bigger games’.

This summer, the preparation has seemed just fine. The problem isn’t fitness. It’s fluency.

Joe Schmidt almost seems to be sending his side headlong in to games without a great deal of his famed meticulous planning. In February and March, we happily defended detractors of what was often a reductive gameplan from Ireland, because there was always a clear pattern and purpose at play. The past four games look like the team has been sent out to keep up appearances and ensure the big RWC playbook stays under wraps.

That said, confidence and faith in Schmidt should rightly remain high. He has amassed too much credit for anyone to lose belief in Schmidt, his methods or the ability of his team to turn on the style when they need it most.

After pragmatically picking their way through the opening four games this year’s Six Nations Championship, Ireland embraced the sunshine and ran from deep to brilliant effect in Murrayfield. It was a similar scenario 12 months earlier; when the chips were down in Paris, the green shirts took all the confidence that winning had generated and turned it into a magnificent display away to Les Bleus.

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IrelandÕs management team look on with Joe Schmidt Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

It’s not that the loss to England was all bad either. Paul O’Connell’s try put some respectability on the scoreboard after an excellent set-play on the back of a maul. Both Jonathan Sexton and Simon Zebo attempted to force openings along the backline with trademark loops. The scrum was as solid as you could hope it to be against England and the penalty count returned to a miserly five. All of this is good news, but these are only a handful of component parts. The cement that binds a performance together hasn’t been wheeled on site yet.

The reason this concern has taken hold is because it’s a long time (if ever) since we have watched a Schmidt side look quite as directionless as they were during the opening 40 minutes at Twickenham yesterday. Sometimes basic skills, attacking instinct, defensive shape and outright confidence isn’t something that can just be switched on and off like a light switch.

Jonathan Sexton, Simon Zebo and Dave Kearney after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Pool D opens for Ireland with Tests against Canada and Romania. On paper, these are two more warm-up matches before the important tournament-defining games arrive in October. In reality, Canada and Romania will be feisty, upset-hungry opposition that will feast on any uncertainty.

The frightening ghosts of ’07 aren’t raised lightly here – and we’re more than happy to look stupid when Ireland prove every word of this wrong by hitting the ground running on 19 September – but, eight years on there are worrying signs to be addressed in the two weeks before another short-hop World Cup.

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