September 20th 2019; the start of the 9th Rugby World Cup. This is the first time the competition has been hosted by a non-tier 1 nation. While the early stages of the competition are bound to see some heavy rain during matches – the later stages will probably see drier conditions with temperatures of around 17 degrees; arguably the perfect conditions for rugby union. With the so-called “warm-up” games completed this is a suitable juncture at which to take stock of Ireland’s chances.
Earlier in the year I wrote a piece entitled: “Does The IRFU View The Grand Slam As More Important Than The World Cup?” The general idea was that in order to offer Ireland their best chance in the World Cup the team’s depth and structure would need to be developed; likely to the detriment of results over the course of the Six Nations Championship.
To quote the aforementioned “Giving all members of the squad opportunities to play in high-pressure test games cannot be framed as anything but adequate preparation.” Schmidt made a very definite statement of intent by selecting Robbie Henshaw at fullback against England. While this, and indeed many of Joe Schmidt’s other attempts to increase squad depth did not yield immediate or obvious success, the fruits of the squad building done during the six nations should become more apparent.
The Six Nations; and indeed the first two World Cup warm up games rather unsurprisingly brought out the plethora of armchair pundits and psychologists that seem to appear at every shortcoming in Irish sport. Every counter of every public house in Ireland is home to at least one expert on Joe Schmidt’s shortcomings – and the psychology of World Cup preparation. The fact is that the intricacies of modern sports psychology are a mystery to most. Besides, there is not one perfect tried and tested way to prepare for a competition in sport.
Then came the dropping of Devin Toner from the World Cup squad. Queue the re-emergence of the armchair pundits. On the other side of the globe, the All Blacks omit Owen Franks from their World Cup squad; and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. Franks is the holder of two world cup winners’ medals. We are too loyal to individual players in this country. Nobody is bigger than the team. The counties that have won the World Cup seem to understand this.
The reality is, Devin Toner is 33 years of age. At one stage in his career he was one of the most efficient line-out operators in the world. Under Schmidt he bulked up considerably; and became more of a force in open play than he traditionally had been. However, over the last year it has become apparent that we need a more dynamic pack than we have had in recent years. The introduction of Jack Conan and Tadgh Beirne are just two examples of this. Dropping Devin Toner seemed to be a return to the old Joe Schmidt; ruthless, calculated desire to win. Devin Toner doesn’t offer us the best option available over the course of the world cup – in truth he is a player that suits only one style of play. While he is one of the best players in the world to implement this style of play the World Cup challenges a squad to adapt. If anything, we need more of this ruthlessness from Joe Schmidt. Peter O’Mahony’s place may be at risk from Tadgh Beirne; or of course CJ Stander.
Something that Joe Schmidt did not manage to solve; and something which it may have been beyond any coach to solve is the issue at 10. It is undeniable that Ireland are not the same without Johnathan Sexton at outside-half. His only viable replacement; should he fall foul of an injury is Joey Carbery. Carbery is set to return to play within the coming week – but his recent injury profile is not exactly reassuring. Schmidt’s strength and conditioning team will be monitoring the fitness of Sexton and Carbery meticulously; the cabinet is looking rather bare behind them.
And so, for the first time ever Ireland go to the Rugby World Cup ranked at the best team in World Rugby. I don’t believe anybody is in doubt that the world ranking system doesn’t tell the whole story. In reality if Ireland do well in this World Cup (keeping in mind that we have never made it past the quarter final stages); Joe Schmidt is a national hero. Conversely if Ireland do not progress past the quarter final stages he is most certainly a villain. Schmidt was always facing an uphill; almost unwinnable battle in preparing Ireland to go to the World Cup. It is only a fool who would dare to claim that Joe Schmidt has not done everything within his power to prepare this team; and then some. What befalls this team is in the lap of the rugby gods now.
Matthew Dillon – Sports Editor