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)
A recent drop in form has seen Northampton Saints prop Owen Franks miss out on selection as New Zealand named the squad tasked to win an unprecedented third straight Rugby World Cup.
Franks, 31, will not contest his third tournament in Japan this year after a poor showing in his final season for the Canterbury Crusaders before signing with the Premiership Rugby side.
The tighthead, who has played 108 Tests for his country, was replaced in the front row by 24-year-old Atu Moli of the Waikato Chiefs.
Powerful centre Ngani Laumape, 26, and experienced back-rower Liam Squire, 28, also missed out on spots on the plane.
Coach Steve Hansen preferred four centres ahead of Laumape – Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty – with the latter three picked despite recent injuries.
Squire was not picked after injuries kept him out of Test rugby this year, with Hansen instead selecting one-cap flanker Luke Jacobson.
A dislocated shoulder suffered in New Zealand’s Rugby Championship draw with South Africa means lock Brodie Retallick, 28, will not play in pool matches in Japan but is expected to be passed fit for the knockout stages.
Richie Mo’unga has been named as the All Blacks’ starting fly-half, where the 25-year-old will continue his potent playmaking combination from the previous three Tests with full-back Beauden Barrett.
Interestingly, Hansen has also named three non-specialist fly-halves in centres Ryan Crotty and Jordie Barrett and half-back TJ Perenara.
Back-rower Kieran Read, 33, will lead the squad to his first World Cup as captain, with longstanding utility back Ben Smith, 33, picked as his deputy.
Read, Williams and lock Sam Whitelock will all be participating in their third iteration of rugby’s premier competition, but Hansen has overall preferred youth with 19 of the 31-man squad tournament debutants.
Hansen said: “This Rugby World Cup looks like being the most fiercely-contested yet with a large number of teams all believing they can win.
“This will bring possibly more pressure and expectation on them than ever before and it will be interesting to see who can and who can’t cope with it.”
New Zealand’s tournament begins against South Africa in Yokahama on September 21.
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Eddie Jones insists England must continue scaling their Everest as he reflects on the off-field bonding that has helped propel his team into genuine World Cup contention.
Ireland were overwhelmed 57-15 at Twickenham on Saturday in a victory that sent records tumbling as a highest number of tries and points scored against their Six Nations rivals also contributed to the greatest winning margin.
A mighty performance issued a statement with one last warm-up Test remaining – against Italy in Newcastle on Friday week – before the squad departs for Japan on September 8.
Having been involved in four previous World Cups, Jones compares preparation for the tournament to climbing a mountain.
And critical to reaching their current position has been the social events held at a recent training camp in Treviso that may have seen Mike Brown and Ben Te’o lock horns, but was invaluable for others.
“You have ideas in your head but you never know exactly where you need to be because you don’t know where the opposition are,” Jones said.
“If we’re at the bottom of Mount Everest, we’ve got to plan to be at base camp three by now, but if everyone else is at base camp five, then your plan is wrong.
“You’ve got to keep evaluating, keep looking. The only thing you do know is that you’ve got to keep going forward and that’s hard.
“It’s like climbing a mountain, the higher you get, the more uncomfortable it gets, the ground gets shaky, your ears start to burn, your nose starts to run.
“And that’s where we’re getting into that territory because we’ve got to push it forward again.
“For an England side that is quite a difficult thing because you’ve got 12 clubs that all have different philosophies and the players are employed by the clubs. If someone pays you money, you’re loyal to that club.
“To have time together as a team and for them to work out differences for a better relationship is massive for us.”
England return to Treviso this week for the second of their two ‘heat camps’, which Jones insists will be like a “mini pre-season” as he prepares to raise the intensity once more, declaring “it’s the only way we can get better”.
An eight-try demolition of Ireland – considered fellow title contenders – has set minds racing over what could unfold this autumn, but number eight Billy Vunipola knows what must happen next to justify the hype.
“I would like to see that performance away from home. That is the biggest thing for me. I have said it to Eddie in the changing rooms,” Vunipola said.
“It’s something we need to start doing away from Twickenham. That is the biggest challenge next, going to Japan and doing it away from all our fans and the comforts of our home changing room.
“Our next game is against Italy but our biggest game is against Tonga. We need to put out performances like Ireland more consistently.”
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