A 42-point record defeat to England, Joe Schmidt’s worst loss in 69 matches as head coach, eight tries conceded, 34 missed tackles, concerns over Cian Healy’s ankle and doubts over Johnny Sexton. All of this four weeks out from the Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland.
But Irish fans shouldn’t panic yet. For all the talk about the Men in Green hitting their peak ten months ago that it is something that won’t be known until after the World Cup itself.
Every team is at different stages of their preparation ahead of rugby’s global showpiece. In addition to that, coaches are trialling different tactics, different players and different combinations in a bid to hit the ground running in Japan next month.
And despite Saturday’s comprehensive 57-15 defeat, Ireland, to their defence, had travelled straight from Faro to London after eight days of gruelling warm-weather training.
Heavy legs and a large volume of workload in the lead up to the match, no doubt, would have contributed to a poor display at Twickenham.
But Schmidt is known to be one of the leading coaches in world rugby with his meticulous attention to detail and planning. The man always has a plan. It is hoped that, despite a disappointing 2019 to date, he is holding something back for the World Cup.
You don’t go from being one of the best in the world to a bad team overnight.
2018 signified arguably the greatest year in Irish rugby history: a Six Nations Grand Slam, first test series victory in Australia for almost 40 years and November’s fully deserved toppling of the All Blacks made the Men in Green become genuine World Cup contenders.
In a relatively easy qualifying group with Scotland, Russia, Japan and Samoa, it is the opener against the Scots that is likely to shape the fate of the pool, with the winner potentially playing a resurgent South Africa in the quarter-finals and the loser taking on New Zealand.
Schmidt will name his 31-man squad for the World Cup before the final warm-up match against Wales in Dublin next week. The starting XV, though, picks itself barring injury.
Captain Rory Best leads the side from hooker, despite increased scrutiny about his place in the team after the commanding loss to England.
On either side of the Ulsterman, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong will bring all their power and skill to set the physical tone at scrum and maul time.
Behind them, Devin Toner and the influential James Ryan provide huge industry and work-rate to the line-out and open play. Along with Healy, 23-year-old Ryan was Ireland’s star man last season.
In the back-row, Peter O’Mahony needs to step up after a number of recent sub-par displays in an Ireland shirt. The ever-reliable Josh van der Flier will wear the number seven jersey, with Jack Conan potentially putting pressure on CJ Stander for the number eight berth.
Form would suggest the Leinster man deserves a chance after a stellar year for the 2018 Champions Cup winners.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may not be fizzing on the same elevated levels of last year, but a temporary dip in form and injuries have curtailed their normal majestic influence.
Come Japan, the buzz and pressure of a World Cup environment should spur them on.
Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw will solidify the midfield, providing a fresh cutting edge to the attack while also showing serious physically in defence. Ringrose, in particular, will be hoping to put a forgettable campaign behind him.
Out wide, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls will cement both wing slots and the solid Rob Kearney will add all his 90-caps of experience to the 15 jersey. Stockdale, with 14 tries in 20 matches, is the danger man but needs to improve on his defensive reads and positioning.
Reaching a first-ever World Cup semi-final would inspire a nation and bring the curtain down on Schmidt’s illustrious seven years as Ireland coach which has been the most successful period for rugby on the Emerald Isle.
Confidence may be low for Irish rugby fans after a poor season so far, but in a World Cup year, the only thing that is important is the World Cup itself.
It’s a game of patience, and even a promising performance and an avoidance of injury against Wales over the next two weeks could change the gloomy narrative around this team and put them back on track for a grand finale in Japan.
Nickname(s): Men in Green
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Rory Best
Most caps: Brian O’Driscoll (133)
Top scorer: Ronan O’Gara (1,093)
Top try scorer: Brian O’Driscoll (46)
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011 and 2015)
Fixtures: Scotland (September 22), Japan (September 28), Russia (October 3), Samoa (October 12)
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