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Blame Schmidt for Sexton-less failure

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Shizuoka was repeat of Cardiff 2015 for Sexton-less Ireland

Saturday was a shocker for Ireland at the World Cup, Joe Schmidt’s favourites losing 19-12 to World Cup hosts Japan despite taking an early 3-12 lead.

The stunning ambush highlighted how the Irish haven’t really developed a reliable RWC Plan B for when the all-important Johnny Sexton is unavailable. 

Skipper Rory Best also went from last Sunday’s hero to this weekend’s zero in showing his age, being outplayed and being unable to provide the necessary leadership to prevent a punch-drunk Ireland from falling into arrears they never recovered from.   

Their blunt attacking performance – which featured 58 scoreless minutes after two early tries harvested from kicks off penalty advantage – marked a devastating throwback to the horrible 1990s where Ireland used to be dreadfully inconsistent from week to week and prey to utterly deflating results versus lesser calibre outfits.

Rather than winning to endorse their RWC seeding as Pool A favourites, a status that was shaping up towards a quarter-final versus South Africa, Ireland are now awkwardly playing catch-up in a group where the ‘reward’ for finishing second is a quarter-final against defending champions New Zealand. 

(Continue reading below…)

Here, RugbyPass sifts through the debris of an unforgettable day at Ecopa Stadium that has given Ireland a rugby hangover they would never have imagined having to deal with in a tournament they came into as the world’s No1 ranked side with ambitions of lifting the trophy

We told you so about the failed promise from 2015

You can’t say RugbyPass didn’t issue a grave warning about Ireland ahead of their fixture with Japan in Shizuoka. On Friday, we outlined how coach Schmidt was heading into a massive World Cup match having failed to live up to the promise made by his high-performance boss four years ago – that Ireland would not wind up going into a big game at the 2019 finals relying on an inexperienced outhalf starting at No10. 

In the fall-out from the 2015 quarter-final humbling by Argentina, David Nucifora bemoaned how a lack of depth behind Sexton – Ian Madigan was making just his sixth Test start as a No10 against Los Pumas – had seriously undermined Ireland’s effort and this very mistake would not be repeated in the Far East.  

Talk about nakedly not living up to your promise. In the 45 matches since the last World Cup before Ireland’s seismic ambush by Japan, Sexton has started on 28 occasions with another nine starts given to Paddy Jackson, the pivot unceremoniously sacked by the IRFU in 2018. 

That left crumbs of exposure for everyone else and with Joey Carbery, next best with six starts, injured since August and only making the Shizuoka bench, the treasured No10 jersey was placed in the hands of Jack Carty for only the second time ever. 

Much like Madigan four years ago and also Eoin Reddan – then a complete rookie – being plunged into the heat of the 2007 World Cup at No9 against France in Paris in place of the overly experienced Peter Stringer, the inexperienced Carty was handed an onerous task that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for by his head coach. 

In no way should Carty be solely blamed for the incredible Irish mishap that developed, as too many far more established players went missing in action. To Carty’s credit, it was his kicks off penalty advantage that created Ireland’s two early tries, but his overall game lacked the very necessary composure for them to build on a 12-3 advantage that really should have been 15-3.

In the opening minutes, Carty unwisely spurned three early points off the tee in front of the posts for a cross-kick that didn’t properly reach Keith Earls out wide. For a team whose philosophy is to build scoreboard pressure and hammer that advantage home, ignoring cheap points was a serious black mark. 

Of course, Carty will only learn from the experience but it all comes back to Ireland not having a reliable Plan B when Sexton isn’t available to start. The fact that Carty wound up starting this crucial World Cup match having only ever previously started a warm-up friendly last month exposed the notion that Ireland had built across-the-board squad depth in the four years since England 2015. They hadn’t and the price they paid was enormous.  

Diffusing the Murray aerial bomb

It was just six days ago that we were all marvelling the return of the Conor Murray aerial bomb, the scrum-half kicking on 14 occasions against Scotland and significantly influencing the pattern of the exchanges in Yokohama where Ireland collectively kicked on 39 occasions from the hand. 

Against Japan, though, Ireland’s kicking rate tumbled to just 19 with Murray curiously only kicking twice from the hand in a radical change of plan where the preference seemed to be to channel as much as possible through rookie Carty rather than rely on a kicking tactic that Murray had honed to world-class perfection for years.  

You would have thought that in a half-back combination that was starting for only its first time ever, Murray would have taken on more of the responsibility on himself to lead Ireland around the park. However, he was noticeably timid, running on just four occasions for a 16-metre gain in a match where he opted to pass a whopping 98 times.

Ruddock chats to referee Gardner

Ireland replacement Rhys Ruddock talks to referee Angus Gardner during the shock loss to Japan (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

His ineffectual contribution wasn’t helped by him falling foul of referee Angus Gardner. The three penalties Murray conceded offered Japan three shots at goal, two of which were converted for six points.  Discipline was a general issue, even if it could be debated that the Australian official came down somewhat harder on Ireland than on the Japanese.  

RugbyPass had noted in the build-up to Shizuoka that amid the hullabaloo surrounding their demolition of Scotland, one important statistic got lost in that noise – that Ireland had unusually come out on the wrong side of the penalty count for the first time in 10 matches in 2019. 

They conceded seven penalties to Scotland’s six, evidence that suggested they needed to be on their guard against Japan. However, they fared even worse than last Sunday, losing out nine-six on this count and giving Yu Tamura shots at goal on a half-dozen occasions, four of which he converted for 12 points. 

Stark lack of ball-carrying oomph 

Ball-carrying statistics for Ireland’s starting pack were dwarfed by what Japan produced in a contest where the hosts clearly won the collisions and the gain line battles. The numbers were stark. Whereas Japan from No1 to No8 collectively made 84 runs to clock up a 174-metre gain, the lethargic Irish eight managed just 64 metres from 53 runs. 

Nowhere was this anomaly as stark than in the front row. Ireland’s triumvirate of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong managed a paltry three metres from 11 carries, a figure easily eclipsed by the 57 metres the Japanese front row chipped in with off their 35 runs. 

Switching to the back row, Japan’s starting three clocked up 101 metres from 31 runs compared to Ireland’s 30 metres off 18 runs. All the more galling for the Irish was that Shizuoka represented an ‘improvement’ in the numbers for Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier. Against the Scots, that pair made just four metres off seven runs whereas they managed 12 metres off eight runs versus Japan. 

Truth be told, though, they were outclassed in this carrying department, a weakness that highlighted just now much Ireland are missing the ballast of the likes of Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy who didn’t make the squad due to injury. 

The curse of playing the hosts 

Another curious situation RugbyPass highlighted during the build-up was how Ireland had in the past made a pig’s ear of previous encounters with World Cup hosts. Australia in Sydney in 1987, Scotland in Edinburgh in 1991 and France in Paris in 2007 had all given the Irish a dusting and Japan now join this dubious list. 

The result need not be fatal to Irish hopes of reaching a first-ever semi-final at the ninth attempt. Australia showed in 2011 how possible it is to bounce back, responding to their game two defeat to Ireland in Auckland by recovering to reach the last four and ultimately doing better in that tournament than the Irish who were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.  

 

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However, Ireland don’t have an encouraging track record of shaking off desperate pool form. In 2007, after they came within a TMO decision of being ambushed by Georgia in the dying minutes in Bordeaux, they went on to lose to France and Argentina and suffered an exit that had Eddie O’Sullivan out of a job six months later after an underwhelming follow-up Six Nations. 

With Schmidt having long-since announced he will be stepping down at the end of this World Cup to be succeeded by assistant Andy Farrell, there at least won’t be any speculation about the coach’s position on the back of this terrible result. 

However, after a chastening Saturday where Ireland went a miserable 58 minutes without a score and were decisively beaten 10-0 coming down the last-quarter finishing straight, the New Zealander now has it all to do if the Irish really are to create that elusive history they so very much desire.   

Big Dev was missed 

One of Schmidt’s biggest gambles in the build-up to World Cup 2019 was the shafting of loyal servant Devin Toner. The lock’s lack of heft in the carry was supposedly a reason why he was dramatically jettisoned in favour of the recently eligible South African Jean Kleyn, but the loss to Japan – a game Kleyn had no involvement in – suggests this decision has now come back to haunt Schmidt.

What Toner had always been was a banker at the lineout and a dictator in the attacking maul department. Both these attributes were acutely missed in Shizuoka where Ireland lost a couple of critical lineouts. The first on halfway allowed Japan a critical momentum shift when they trailed 12-3, and the second happened after Ireland had kicked a 49th-minute penalty to touch in the opposition 22 when they would have surely looked to maul their way towards the line if Toner was present.   

WATCH: RugbyPass gauges the mood as spectators filter out of the stadium following Ireland’s stunning loss to Japan in Shizuoka 

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Shizuoka was repeat of Cardiff 2015 for Sexton-less Ireland