No one could have predicted the current Six Nations champions and Autumn International shining stars to fall from grace during their latest Rugby World Cup warm-up campaign.
Unfortunately, for all making the trip to the Millennium Stadium for the first World Cup opener against Canada in just over a week’s time, there exists a struggle for consistency and a lower world ranking for Irish hearts.
With two recent defeats to home nation giants, Wales and England, Joe Schmidt’s men are now sixth in the world, having spiralled from an impressive second after their comprehensive 35-21 win over Wales in Cardiff at the start of August.
A Scottish visit to Dublin then followed and proved to be a close but successful encounter for Ireland at 28-22. However, it was the final two warm-up fixtures that caused the “form” team some trouble.
Ireland’s Aviva clash with Wales at the end of last month presented a physical headache, forcing a lack of accuracy at the breakdown, which proved to be the difference between the two sides and resulted in a 16-10 loss.
England at Twickenham granted Ireland the opportunity to iron out any concerns before the World Cup journey commences. Unfortunately, more ‘areas of improvement’ have been added to Schmidt’s list, with a lack of intensity and precision defining last weekend’s scoreline of 21-13.
A weak defensive line and the loss of balls in the air characterised Ireland’s performance. Little to no aggression also meant missed tackles and easy tries for powerful English forward and back play. An inability to slow ball down effectively at the ruck combined with holes in the line to allow speedsters through.
However, there were some positives to draw from Ireland’s warm-ups, with one featuring Ulster’s Rory Best. A decisive set-piece play from the lineout during the second-half against England lead to a Paul O’Connell try, after Best applied the pressure around the breakdown. To see Ireland scoring off set-piece plays bodes well for those all defining moments in World Cup games.
Ireland found some fluency in phases across all of the warm-up fixtures in the series, keeping the ball alive through forwards and backs, who collectively made a point to be a ball-playing side at times.
The Ulstermen within the squad have impressed when given the chance during the warm-ups. The ever-growing talent of Iain Henderson in an Irish jersey is something Schmidt has noted. The Ulsterman was a stand-out performer in Ireland’s defeat to Wales, executing his try with sheer brute strength. His versatility and carrying ability in the second-row and back-row is bound to cause a selection headache, when it comes to penciling that starting XV.
Rory Best’s experience and solidity within the team should keep him in line for the start, with an excellent second-half against England proving he’s still the man for the job. Jared Payne reunited with Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw in the centre to assert his claim in the midfield by carrying most effectively. Tommy Bowe didn’t fire on all cylinders at Twickenham, with a struggle for fitness and physicality defining his game. Hopefully, the Ulster reliable will return to his usual form come World Cup kick-off.
Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson and Darren Cave are still set to make their contributions to the tournament, with an injury-free Ulster contingent a real positive ahead of Ireland’s campaign.
Ireland’s World Cup pool games:
Saturday, 19 September, 14:30 BST: Ireland V Canada, Millennium Stadium
Sunday, 27 September, 16:45 BST: Ireland V Romania, Wembley Stadium
Sunday 4 October, 16:45 BST: Ireland V Italy, Olympic Stadium
Sunday, 11 October, 16:45 BST: Ireland V France, Millennium Stadium