Dismal Desperate Dejected
Ireland sent its most talented and best prepared team to Rugby World Cup 2007. The team fared worse than any previous Irish team in the competition and worse than all but a handful of teams at the tournament. How it went wrong, what is now needed and why Eddie O'Sullivan should be retained for now. By Brent Pope
Ireland is the big disappointment of the Rugby World Cup. They beat Australia and South Africa in the 2006 autumn internationals, nearly beat New Zealand at home that year, won consecutive Triple Crowns in 2006 and 2007 and narrowly lost the Six Nations title to France in 2007. Ireland's best ever rugby team was going to its best ever World Cup.
In retrospect, the expectation was too high. International tours have lost their significance and, more importantly for Ireland, the inferiority of the Six Nations competition was exposed by the poor performance of the northern hemisphere teams in this World Cup. It now appears that no Six Nations side will qualify to the semi final stages: only France, Scotland and England qualified from their groups, stutteringly so, each emerging in second place. The strength of Ireland's Six Nations campaign and its international tests are, in this context, less impressive than originally thought and will remain so.
Teams get one chance in four years to pitch themselves against the best in the world and Ireland must start rebuilding the team that will contest the next World Cup.
Ireland's malaise stretches to the end of the Six Nations. Munster's and Leinster's performances in the European Cup quarter finals were poor, but their disqualification was welcomed ahead of the World Cup – it would allow Eddie O'Sullivan more time to prepare.
But the tour to Argentina was a waste of time. Apart from Gavin Duffy and Eoin Reddan, no new fringe players were identified that would be used in the World Cup. Ireland lost the opportunity of two important tests for a world cup squad.
Ireland struggled in August against Scotland and especially against Italy when a near full-strength Irish side won only in the final minute with a questionable try. The physical match against Bayonne did nothing for morale; a punch on Brian O'Driscoll sent him to the sideline and other Irish players didn't want to play that game.
Ireland's play before and during the World Cup lacked aggression and hunger and looked lethargic. Extensive weight training saw the players in good physical condition but they seemed over trained, bored and without the hunger and desire needed to perform at the World Cup. Tonga, Argentina, Japan and Fiji; none of these countries have the resources Ireland has. Yet these teams played with a far greater desire than Ireland.
Tonga slept four players to a hotel room and had to borrow boots to play some games. Argentina has its players scattered all across the globe. Players from these teams threw themselves headlong into the game with such fervour that it's hard to believe many of them train only a couple of times a week and have day jobs. For Ireland, this element of its preparation must be examined before the next World Cup. Are the players so over trained and bored that they can't bring that winning desire onto the field?
Ireland's downfall is ultimately the lack of fundamental skill: possession was turned over, silly penalties conceded and kicking was not good in any game. Tackling was generally good, but that comes down to hitting bags, part of the physical training that has taken precedence over the fundamentals of rugby.
New Zealanders work on skill for years; kicking off both feet, passing either side and creating space for players to run in to. Ireland must practice this. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy were enveloped by defences and forced into retreat. But they ran into defences when they should put players into space with kicks, passes and strategic planning. This was witnessed against Argentina when Ireland was forced to retreat only to offload to a player in a worse position. Retaining possession and moving forward is fundamental.
Ireland was conservative in the bench which consisted of utility players that can play several positions. Eddie O'Sullivan used the least number of players of any world cup squad which demonstrated little faith in the second fifteen. Although there is a small pool of players here, Ireland can develop substitutes and impact players like Chabal for France who excite the game and elevate the team. Stephen Ferris and Alan Quinlan, big physical players, got no game time for Ireland.
Team spirit was lacking in an Irish team that seemed frustrated and didn't enjoy the tournament. David Wallace said that the team got to know one another over drinks one night and implied there should have been more bonding. I don't advocate drinking too much in professional sport but this often helps the team to gel. The Argentineans were singing on the bus to the French match, someone had a guitar, they enjoyed themselves.
Entering the World Cup without a natural number seven limited the continuity play and fast go-forward ball essential for Ireland to capitalise on its back line. Ireland needs a link up player. Richie McCaw is always there to recycle fast ball for New Zealand - running, on the ground, turning ball around. I admire David Wallace but he is better suited as a number eight or a blindside flanker. Electric over the first five metres, but should have swapped position with Denis Leamy. Wallace gets sucked into a defensive role, but needs to be unrestricted and to free himself into the centres. He must link up with the backs and make turnovers in defence. Geordan Murphy's try against Argentina came when Wallace linked him with O'Driscoll.
Contract negotiations prior to the World Cup were probably prompted by O'Sullivan and he was in the perfect position to renegotiate. The IRFU were happy with O'Sullivan's service. Support was high, Ireland had been ranked third in the world, they had good performances against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and won the Triple Crown in consecutive years.
But it was ludicrous for the IRFU to give Eddie O'Sullivan another four year contract ahead of the World Cup. Rugby is a business and that decision was not business savvy. The IRFU should have publicly endorsed O'Sullivan going into the tournament and agreed a tentative contract based on the team's performance in France.
We don't know how the players responded to the IRFU's decision. A contract may signal the death knell for players like Geordan Murphy who didn't get on particularly well with O'Sullivan and other fringe players who weren't given the chances they deserved. A new coach brings better opportunities for outside players, this can reinvigorate the team. Fringe players may have felt that because they didn't get in before, they won't get in in future.
It would be a mistake for the IRFU to change a coach for the sake of finding someone to blame. The questions that must be asked are this:
Has Eddie O'Sullivan had a good record up to the World Cup? Yes. O'Sullivan is the most successful coach Ireland has seen and has the best record of results of any coach for Ireland.
Has he introduced enough new players over his reign to date that were his own creation? No. Look at the players that were introduced in Warren Gatland's reign - D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Murphy, Ronan O'Gara, Paul O'Connell. Only Denis Leamy and a couple of other players represent the O'Sullivan era. What happens next is uncertain; Luke Fitzgerald and Stephen Ferris could become the stars of the future.
Yes, he has experience. But many people think that regardless of results, a coach should be replaced every four or five years, particularly when the same core players are retained.
A replacement for Eddie O'Sullivan could come from Michael Bradley for Connaught and Mark McCall for Ulster who are doing well, but are too young for the job at present. Bradley will probably get the job at some stage. Declan Kidney has done a great job with Munster but failed with Leinster. Given the strong Leinster element in the Irish team, the impact Kidney can have on the team is questionable.
Regardless of what O'Sullivan says he can do in the future, the crucial thing for the IRFU is to ask the players their opinion in the review of the World Cup. The crux of the matter is whether O'Sullivan still has the respect and support of the players. If players say that they don't particularly respect him any more, that is the real judgement. It is important that the opinion of the entire squad be considered; substitutes and fringe players as well as key players.
O'Sullivan is Ireland's most successful coach. He has the credentials and he should be retained, but just for now. The length of his retention has to depend on the IRFU's investigation into the World Cup. If O'Sullivan has lost the confidence of the players, then he must be replaced.
His retention also depends on developing a squad for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. He said in a press conference that he can bring ‘this team' back to the form it showed five months ago. This team had its chance at this World Cup. Once a World Cup finishes, other teams go straight into training for the next. In the 2008 Six Nations, O'Sullivan must introduce new talent. That means a rack out of some older players. He identified young talent in Eoin Reddan and Stephen Ferris but must do more; if that means taking an Irish-qualified prop from Argentina or New Zealand, then absolutely – every other team does it, Ireland must too.
The minnows of the tournament, Ireland included, are home now, but many achieved more than expected. This tournament could have seen a two tier system develop in world rugby where lower ranked teams were demolished by massive scores and players were ruled out due to injury. But every team, bar perhaps Ireland, has gained something from this tournament.
Tonga is the outstanding team of the tournament. The team with the least resources, the Tongans produced energetic and entertaining rugby. The Japanese press supporting the renewal of John Kirwan's contract is great. The bravery of their play, not the 88 point defeat by Australia, is what is important. They came back to lose 31-35 to Figi with a last minute surge and to draw 12-12 with Canada in an enthralling finish to their tournament. Figi played the game of the tournament to beat Wales 38-34 and qualify to the quarter final.
No northern hemisphere team is likely to reach a semi-final. New Zealand will probably beat France in Cardiff, Australia will beat England, and Argentina will beat Scotland. Argentina can reach the final. They will be on a high after defeating Scotland and I fancy them to do well against South Africa. South Africa will not at that point have got as far as they had hoped in the competition; Argentina will, and that will give Argentina a psychological advantage.
England will play better against Australia than they did against Tonga or Samoa. Australia is reasonably weak up front and England has a better line out and scrum, but ultimately England is no match for Australia's backs.
New Zealand has not been tested yet and the quarter final against France is a fascinating contest as it could have been the final. France selected a big, physical star studded back line; if balls bounce well and they run in a couple of tries, France has the ability to beat the All Blacks. But France doesn't like to travel, didn't expect to travel and support will be scant compared to the reported 20,000 All Black fans going to Cardiff.
New Zealand has also fielded a big team. It wants this title too much and it is theirs to lose.