A few days away from the start of the greatest rugby showcase in Japan, and many pundits and fans alike have mixed feelings about Ireland’s prospects of winning the World Cup. After moving to World No. 1 after defeating Wales in Dublin in their final warm-up match, the Irish should be firm favourites to win. However, many pundits feel that Ireland will fall to their quarter-final curse, while others believe that they do not have the right personnel in the 31-man squad.
A year ago, many believed that Ireland were on track to their first ever World Cup title, and that Joe Schmidt’s men rivalled New Zealand in their clinical abilities and their game management. In fact, in November 2018, Ireland beat the All Blacks for only the second time in their history, and first time in Dublin, by using their game management to systematically shut down New Zealand at every turn. If the World Cup was contested during the end of year tour in 2018, Ireland would have been the team to beat.
However, the Irish performances in 2019 have underwhelmed when compared to their spectacular form of 2018. Their troubles started when England, under strict tutelage of Eddie Jones, analysed the Irish game and did to Ireland precisely what Ireland did to the All Blacks just three months earlier. The English dissected the Irish gameplan, and Ireland were unable to adapt to their opponents. Ireland went on to only lose to Wales for the remainder of the Six Nations, but still ended up third on the log.
Ireland were out of action until August, where it was England again that used their spectacular game analysis to dismantle the Irish defence and capitalise on every force mistake the Irish made. From the low of losing 57-15 in Twickenham, however, the men from the Emerald Isle picked up two important victories over Wales. Of particular interest in these two victories was the style of play adopted by Ireland.
In their double header against Wales, Ireland looked more like the Grand Slam Six Nations Champions of 2018, using positive kicks, fast defence and intelligent forwards play to good effect. Similar to England, Ireland looked well coached in their final two warm-up matches, and their supporters should feel confident in Schmidt’s plan ahead of the World Cup. When things are going according to plan for the Irish, nothing seems to be able to stop them. This, however, could prove to be their biggest downfall in Japan.
Against England, Wales, and even Italy in August, Ireland struggled to secure their own lineout ball, and even when they did, it was not positive possession off of the lineout. This is where the omission of Devin Toner is particularly intriguing.
When Toner was brought on off the bench against England, the Irish lineout suddenly looked much better, and they were able to get some solid ball from set plays. For a number of years, Toner has been the talisman in the Irish lineout, so to leave him out of the Irish World Cup campaign seems like an increasingly strange move. Toner’s replacement, South African-born Jean Kleyn, has not shown much in the line of lineout supremacy in his two matches for Ireland. Kleyn will need to pick up his game drastically in the opening rounds of the World Cup if he is going to make up for the 2.1m sized hole in the squad that Toner has left.
Another issue that should worry the Irish supporters has been highlighted by both of the England losses in 2019; namely their inability to adapt on the day to a new gameplan, and make use of individual brilliance. Bundee Aki, Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray are all brilliant players, and should make a huge impact in Japan, however none of them have shown the presence of mind to adjust an on-field call or pre-planned move if the situation changes. This can be exemplified in the Dan Biggar interception that almost led to a try in Dublin in the final warm up match. Even if Biggar was offside, as Sexton had claimed, once he was seen to be that close to the Irish attacking line, the long pass should have been called off, and the gap created by Biggar’s rush defence should have been exploited by Aki.
In a World Cup, these small moments will likely have major consequences. Ireland could be major title contenders if they can learn to capitalise on broken play and adjust calls as the defensive situations change. All they will need to do then is get over their quarter-final ghosts and they could still be world champions by the end of the year.