Murray Kinsella reports from Cardiff
THESE NEXT 21 weeks are going to be a long, long time for Joe Schmidt.
One of the biggest frustrations for Schmidt in his role as Ireland head coach is waiting for the next Test window to roll around and he has longer than usual over the coming months before the first World Cup warm-up against England on 10 August in Dublin.
Ireland had to watch Wales celebrating their Grand Slam. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
The wait will be all the more painful for the fact that Ireland concluded the Six Nations with a miserable performance against Wales, one of the most concerning they have delivered under Schmidt since he took over in 2013.
As ever, Schmidt will pore over the match footage and question everything – the game plan, selection decisions, the mental preparation and more – in a bid to understand why Ireland so thoroughly failed to turn up, and why they have underperformed over the course of this Six Nations.
Schmidt knows that “the narrative will be whatever pundits or journalists put out there” over the coming weeks, but he urged fans not to lose faith in Ireland ahead of the World Cup.
“The team will definitely turn up in Japan and we’ll grow a bit from this,” said Schmidt. “You only have to look back a year and see that England went back-to-back in the championship and then ended up fifth.
“We’ve fought our way up to third, we’re in the top half of the championship. We haven’t been catastrophic but we haven’t been as good as we needed to be. Today was probably an example of that.”
Worryingly, Ireland finished this championship as badly as they started it, having been well beaten by England in round one in Dublin.
Curiously, Schmidt felt that performance against the English was actually worse than what Ireland offered up against Wales.
“It’s probably not as disappointing as the one that we started the competition with, to be honest. While the score got away from us, I don’t think that performance-wise, we weren’t as far off the mark as we were at the start of the championship.”
The rain poured down in Cardiff. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
That’s up for debate but Schmidt did justifiably point to the energy Wales had yesterday as a key factor, their desperation to seal the Grand Slam giving Warren Gatland’s side “that extra 5%” that Ireland had brought against England in Twickenham last year.
Schmidt took his hat off to Gatland, who has overseen three Grand Slams in 12 years with Wales, but his focus will now be on pinpointing why Ireland were poor.
Schmidt revealed that some of his squad had been ill during the week leading up to the game, complicating things even more in a week where Ireland’s prep window was shortened by playing France last Sunday.
“We had a couple of guys who were struggling, who had a bug and they were isolated and you lose a little bit of that continuity, but apart from a six-day turnaround which is always a little bit complicated.
“We spent the first two or three days of the week recovering and got a hit out on Thursday. But at the same time that’s the nature of the draw.”
Asked who had been affected by the bug, Schmidt simply replied: “Just a couple.”
The poor start Ireland made in Cardiff was hugely damaging, mirroring the concession of an early try against England.
Wales deserve major credit for hammering Jacob Stockdale into touch from the kick-off, then producing a sublime score as Gareth Anscombe chipped for Hadleigh Parkes to gather and dot down, but Ireland must address the poor starts.
Ireland don’t play again until August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I can’t really answer the question,” said Schmidt when asked if those early concessions were down to a mental issue. “It’s difficult to say that it’s a concentration effort because you tend to be concentrating the most when the game starts, that’s when you’re freshest mentally.
“So we knew that fatigue or dehydration has an impact on the ability to cognitively function but, disappointingly, I think they were quite different tries.”
Schmidt paid credit to Anscombe’s chip but shared his frustration at how Ireland had defended it, having spent time analysing the Wales playmaker’s threat in this area.
“We’d shown a couple that he’d done during the week because he’s already done them during the championship and he did them in the November series as well, so it was something that we were aware of and we’ve got to be better at covering next time.”
Ireland’s attack failed to fire enough meaningful shots in the game, with Jordan Larmour’s try with the last act of the game being firmly of the consolation variety.
The question of whether teams have figured Ireland’s attack out returns.
“I’m not sure,” said Schmidt when it was put to him. “I’m sure that teams will, on their day, sometimes get the better of you and sometimes not.
“It’s such a fine margin. Yeah, I think Wales today in the conditions, they got the benefit of some set-piece decisions and off the back of that, they maintained the pressure that they got for that first try.
Schmidt believes his team will turn up at the World Cup. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO
“In the conditions today, we actually said they would do exactly what they did in those first two minutes so working a team out even sometimes you know what a team’s going to do.
“It’s another thing to stop them and we felt that England would do what they did as well but it was difficult to stop them. England knew what we were going to do in Twickenham last year but we were difficult to stop.
“That’s the very highest level of Test rugby where the margins are fine on any given day. When you get the momentum at the start of the game it is hard to then swing the momentum back in your favour and that’s a challenge for any team.”
Schmidt’s task over the coming months is to figure out the nature of the bug that is affecting his team’s players and plan to ensure Ireland get back on the right side of those fine margins.
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