I’m just back from a rugby trip to Cardiff; a quite delightful city even if the weather left much to be desired. I was over to see the Grand Slam game between Ireland and Wales at the Principality Stadium. Good times alright, despite an awful result from an Irish viewpoint. The build-up was dominated, of course, by ‘roofgate’.
Much has been made of Joe Schmidt’s contentious decision to keep the stadium roof open. A lot has been written and usually utter nonsense. Irish reluctance to play ball, so to speak, with the roof issue was attributed to concern over the conditions caused by the de facto indoor atmosphere when the roof is shut.
In fact, Irish opposition was more psychological than practical. And the rules of engagement here are simple. If your opponent asks you to do something, you do the precise opposite. It’s important not to cede an inch and do anything that gives your rival even the slightest advantage.
It’s like when Martin Johnson trod all over Mary McAleese’s lovely red carpet in 2003. The former England skipper’s actions were portrayed at the time as premeditated and deeply provocative; a deliberate snub to Ireland’s popular head of state. But it had bugger all to do with any of that.
Johnson’s men mistakenly found themselves on the wrong side following a balls up in pre-match organisation and protocol. However, when asked repeatedly to move, Johnson and his lieutenants famously held firm. To move in that situation is a sign of weakness. And the Lions legend doesn’t do weakness. The entire Irish army could have descended on Lansdowne Road that day and Johnson wouldn’t have budged. This is the mind-set Ireland were in before the Wales showdown.
In the end, it didn’t work. Wales adapted to the conditions and were infinitely superior on the day. From my vantage point, Ireland had only a handful of notable attacks and barely looked like scoring prior to Jordan Larmour’s late consolation. While the logic of Schmidt’s stubbornness is plain to see, the strategy backfired painfully. What Ireland’s roof decision betrayed, actually, was a lack of confidence in their ability to play in the closed conditions. Whether that’s true or not is a moot point. It’s what it looked like. That was the clear message delivered to the opposition.
The perceived decline in Ireland’s game has been much discussed and dissected lately. While overplayed, there’s indeed a discernible fall from a team that rose so magnificently to second in the world on the back of only its third Grand Slam in history and a maiden win over the All Blacks on home soil. What on earth has happened?
Actually, it’s not rocket science. Opponents have worked Ireland out. Ironically, the fall from grace is a direct consequence of success. Ireland are watched more closely than ever and cracks have appeared. Schmidt’s highly patterned and programmed game plan works brilliantly when winning the collisions and dominating the physical battle. Ireland are a fantastic front foot team and look awesome when settled into their rhythm.
What other teams have clocked is: match Ireland in the contact areas and force them onto the back foot and their game is severely disrupted. England set the template and everyone else followed suit. In fact, all the signature losses of the Schmidt era have followed this familiar theme. This team sometimes struggles to wrest back control when the game drifts away. Regaining initiative is an art form and one Schmidt’s side hasn’t quite mastered yet.
Momentum isn’t helped, moreover, when your two best players are misfiring. Johnny Sexton cut a deflated and annoyed figure on Saturday and urgently needs to find his form. Ireland’s half backs were well below their lofty standards throughout this championship and the malaise has affected the whole team. Criticism is as ignorant as it is unfair, however. The two lads are genuinely brilliant and will bounce back emphatically from this temporary setback. No doubt about that. It’s time to keep the faith.
That applies to us all. How quickly we jump off the bandwagon following a couple of off key performances. Joe Schmidt insists it’ll be alright at the World Cup and who are we to disagree. Ireland’s coaching master has earned our trust. He’s had blips before and come through stronger and wiser for the experience.
Of course, it’s better if Ireland had delivered more consistently this championship, but these things happen. Better to find out now than at the World Cup. Plenty of time left for Schmidt and his squad to find the answers they need before it all kicks off in Japan. And if they don’t? Well, it’s not the end of the world. These days we don’t have to look too far to put sport into proper perspective.
P.S. As I watched Cardiff erupt on Saturday and saw delirious fans dancing in torrential rain, I couldn’t help but contrast the jubilant scenes with the political wrangling occurring in the Welsh game presently. Rugby is Wales’s national sport, but you only understand that when you go there. After the final whistle, everyone I met (men, women, children, of all ages and classes) were celebrating the win. This is their team. Their sport. The pride was palpable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Food for thought for the WRU. If rugby can’t make the professional game work in Wales, we should give up. Because if rugby can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere.