What is the secret of the success of the Irish rugby team? If there is such a hack, it’s the ability to do the simple things exceedingly well, over and over again. I know I’m being a little reductive here, but that’s the essence. Over the last six seasons, under the careful stewardship of Joe Schmidt, Ireland have been the masters of the basics, the kings of simple. And what rewards that approach brought. A third Grand Slam, promotion to the dizzy position of number two in the world rankings and a maiden win over the All Blacks on Irish soil. This time last year, Schmidt’s men were indeed the masters of all they surveyed.
A year on, the picture is noticeably different. If 2018 was an unprecedented peak for Irish rugby, this year, so far, fairly underwhelming in comparison. It’s not that Ireland have been poor (they haven’t) but a Six Nations that was bookmarked by two decidedly average performances against England and Wales tells the story of a team rattled from its lofty perch. Displays firmly rooted in second gear as opposed to the polished performances of 2018. Ireland are certainly not suffering from a crisis of confidence, but the strut of recent times has been replaced by a sheepish crawl.
Things were so different a year ago. Irish fans were looking ahead to the World Cup with buoyancy and anticipation. Despite the harsh lessons of history, this time was going to be different. Schmidt’s perfectly prepped side was set up to make its own mark and finally deliver on the biggest stage of all. What could possibly go wrong after the success achieved by a groundbreaking Ireland and its key component, a dazzling Leinster side that had completed an historic double?
It feels different now. The wheels haven’t exactly fallen off, but the landscape has changed. Ireland are chastened and a tad demoralised, while Leinster were overpowered and humbled by a rampant Saracens in the recent Champions Cup final. Not a million miles away, of course, but as the dust settles on the season, the Irishmen are chasing the pack rather than leading. And that’s a definite turnaround from where they were just a few months ago. If a week is a long time in politics, rugby fortunes similarly turn on a sixpence.
All’s not lost, however. There is an abundance of talent and experience in Irish rugby ready to deliver in Japan. The injuries to opensides Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien are sad and unfortunate, but there’s enough quality in Schmidt’s squad to fill the gaps. And the men in green definitely won’t lack for motivation in their desire to send esteemed coach and captain off into the sunset as winners. Irish rugby is down, but not out. They’ve long since discarded the underdog tag, but there remains a feeling that Ireland are still uncomfortable with excessive favouritism. With expectations lower than they’ve been in quite some time, Schmidt’s Ireland will, in fact, arrive in Japan in the perfect frame of mind.