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Rugby World Cup

What went wrong with Ireland (and what they can do to fix it)

Peter Lockhart from UlsterRugbyLad takes a look at Ireland’s RWC campaign.

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What went wrong with Ireland (and what they can do to fix it)

IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTERS JUST THE SAME…

Schmidt attributes Ireland’s World Cup demise to the pressure of expectation which, he says, became a “self-consuming monster”.

In the last couple of years Irish rugby has seen it all – the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows, the creamy middles.

Before the World Cup, I was convinced Joe Schmidt had a genius plan: turn in a series of poor performances in the 6 Nations then unleash the real Ireland (who had won the Grand Slam and beaten the All Blacks in Dublin only last year) on their unsuspecting opponents in the World Cup.

There was a growing anticipation towards the Quarter final – Ireland’s customary point of World Cup exit – to the point that many fans and pundits quietly believed we might just edge it against the All Blacks. *SPOILER* That didn’t happen.

It’s the hope that kills you.

Ireland’s World Cup defeat was embarrassingly emphatic. However, reports of the death of Irish rugby have been greatly exaggerated.

With the departure of Joe Schmidt, it is the end of an era of unprecedented success for Ireland. By the end of his tenure, however, it was obvious Ireland had peaked too early.

Arguably, however, the rugby infrastructure and players exist in Ireland to allow us to once again compete with the best teams in the world.

An overhaul is necessary, and it is worth reflecting on some of the things that went wrong for Ireland at this World Cup and, more importantly, what they can do to fix it.

1. Defending the Indefensible

In the sequel to the ‘Brighton Miracle’ – Japan’s dramatic win against South Africa at the last World Cup – Ireland’s ‘Shizuoka de-bagging’ at the hands of the Brave Blossoms is evidence of Ireland’s inability to adapt.

Ireland attempted to impose their rigid defensive structure on the hosts, but Japan stubbornly refused to follow the script.

Ireland like to defend the 12 channel. The Irish defensive line comes ‘up and in’, with the 13 generally coming up out of the line to funnel teams into a stacked midfield and limit the opposition’s width. That’s the theory.

Japan, however, insisted in throwing a spanner in the works. To open-up space, Japan’s first receiver would pass to an inside runner to punch holes and occupy Ireland’s back row.  They would do this a couple of times to keep Ireland guessing and splinter the Irish defence.  This, in combination with Japan’s unpredictable attack and ability to keep the ball alive, meant that Ireland’s rigid defensive structure had no chance.

South Africa had done their homework before facing Japan and deployed Faf de Klerk to follow the ball in defence and prevent the pesky inside pass from the Japanese first receiver, which he did to great effect.

In fairness to Ireland, the All Blacks were nearly impossible to defend against. The speed of their ruck ball was unbelievable. They would generally draw in defenders with three quick rucks, forcing Ireland’s defence to wrap around and then spread the ball into the wider channels. The only way to counteract this is to attempt to slow down their ruck ball which is, of course, easier said than done.

2. Dare you to move

What is the difference between Ireland’s attack now and when they were at their peak?

Movement.

With Ireland’s attack it is always blindingly obvious who the ball is going to. It’s slow, deliberate and static. Presumably, this is to remove risk. The idea is to trundle the ball up the pitch, back and forth, never going too wide and never doing anything silly. Basically, recycle the ball through endless phases to wear teams down.

This only works if, 1) players can reliably catch the ball and, 2) Ireland are actually moving forward and creating point scoring opportunities.

At their peak, Ireland would have a ‘pod’ of three runners moving, ready to receive the ball. This makes it very difficult for the opposition to anticipate what’s happening and organize their defence accordingly.

Ireland would then either give the ball to a member of the pod or shift the ball in behind the pod and spread it out to the backs. Either way, it was less predictable, conservative and, somehow, less error ridden.

Now, the pods are static, it is obvious who the ball is going to, and the opposition line up to smash the ball carrier. Clearly, against good teams this doesn’t work. Cian Healy, for example, carried the ball a grand total of 0 metres against the All Blacks. At the very least, Ireland’s pods need to move and learn to shift the point of the attack to keep the opposition guessing. Ireland have no shortage of fantastic ball carriers – they must be allowed to operate with some degree of dynamism.

In terms of Ireland’s backline, Schmidt limits the level of creativity and invention allowed. With one exception – Jonny Sexton. When Sexton is not in form, Ireland do not play well. Sadly, there is no obvious candidate to take his place (Ulster’s Michael Lowry will not be ready for a couple of years).

There is a lack of effective strike runners in the Ireland squad – players who are capable of picking a really good line and taking the ball off the first receiver at pace. Tommy Bowe in his prime, for example. Stockdale is undoubtedly talented, but he appears to be limited to attacking in the outside channels. Larmour and/or Carberry must now be given license to attack from deep and give Ireland the attacking flair they have been lacking.

3. The Rise of the Offload

The tackle rules have, and will continue to, fundamentally change the game of rugby.

For better or worse, it seems inevitable that World Rugby will limit tackles to waist-height. The way the game is refereed we are already moving in that direction.

Choke tackles – wrapping the player and the ball – and will become increasingly difficult. The type of bone-crunching tackles that feature in YouTube compilations will become a thing of the past.

Offloading will become an increasingly important core skill. Ireland have among the lowest number of offloads of any team in World Rugby and they must get used to playing the ball out of a tackle.

In contrast, Japan demonstrated that the offload can be used to unlock defences to great effect.

Schmidt picked his team based on players who would carry out his instructions to the letter. This meant there was no room for the likes of Stu McCloskey who – for all of his perceived failings – is a master of the half-break offload.

Is McCloskey Ireland’s answer at centre? No, probably not. However, Ireland will have to adapt and find players who have the necessary skill-set for the rapidly changing modern game in which the off-load will be king. With no shortage of blatant Ulster bias, I would humbly suggest that Ulster’s James Hume will fit the bill in the next couple of seasons.

4. Loyalty Over Royalty

It’s hard to argue with Schmidt’s unwavering loyalty to his trusted lieutenants. It’s a good quality in a person, but whether it’s appropriate in the ruthless world of professional sport is another question.

Schmidt sends a clear directive to his players and, understandably, he picks the ones who carry out his instructions to the letter. Indeed, this extends to selecting players who are out of form or are not entirely fit. This type of loyalty ultimately cost Ireland.

For example, Peter O’Mahoney was nowhere near his best at this tournament. The in-form Rhys Ruddock was perhaps a better option but was overlooked in favour of O’Mahoney’s ‘big-game experience’. Kilcoyne, Conway and Farrell will also feel they were not given enough of a chance.

Before Ireland faced the All-Blacks the narrative had revolved around a seasoned Irish team seeking to expose the youth and possible vulnerability of New Zealand’s young brigade of George Bridge, Anton Lienert Brown and Jack Goodhue.

“Experience is a funny thing, isn’t it?” Hansen said with a small smile after they had just dismantled Ireland.

“I’m not being disrespectful here in saying that, but Ireland’s experience was not to win. And we have the guys who actually had experience of winning. And that’s why you’ve got to be careful when you start talking about experience.”

Hansen demonstrates ruthlessness and pragmatism. For example, leaving Owen Franks at home, shifting Beauden Barrett to full-back, dropping Sonny-Bill Williams from the starting team and leaving Sam Cane out against England. There were blips for the All Blacks in this World Cup cycle as they tested their combinations. Hansen has never been afraid to get worse before getting better.

Ireland could learn from this ruthless pragmatism going forward.

5. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

Schmidt did not allow much room for Ireland to play what was in front of them.

Granted, every top team has some degree of structure, even if it’s controlled chaos. However, as much as Schmidt argues that he allows room for creativity in his Ireland team, there was no evidence of this at the World Cup. World class players must be allowed to play ‘in the moment’.

There were a number of instances where Ireland faithfully carried out pre-ordained attack moves, failing to look up and see, for example, that there was oceans of space in front of them. Ireland have players who are more than capable of exploiting such opportunities.

Ireland appeared to be playing with a debilitating anxiety against New Zealand and, to some extent, Japan.

When faced with an attacking structure they hadn’t seen before, Ireland didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t adapt to the unexpected.

Ireland need to focus on developing players who are creative, adaptable and resilient. It is now Andy Farrell’s job to create this environment and encourage a new generation of confident, self-organised Ireland players, capable of adapting to what’s happening in front of them. This will take Ireland to the next level.

Rugby World Cup

Qualification process set for Rugby World Cup 2023

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Image from World Rugby
  • Process designed to promote regional strength and the best teams to rugby’s showcase event
  • 12 teams already qualified owing to top three pool placing at RWC 2019
  • RWC 2023 on track to be a spectacular celebration of rugby and France


World Rugby has announced details of the qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

Following the most competitive and widely-acclaimed Rugby World Cup to date in Japan, the qualification process is designed to deliver the top teams in the world to rugby’s showcase tournament, while promoting a genuine opportunity for all unions.

With 12 teams having secured their place at France 2023 courtesy of finishing in the top three of their respective pools at RWC 2019, the remaining eight places will be determined by a process of regional and cross-regional qualifiers. The process will conclude with a four-team round-robin Final Qualification Tournament in November 2022 to determine the final qualifier.

The dates for events in 2021 will be announced in due course and will be subject to an anticipated easing of the COVID-19 situation.

The announcement follows consultation with unions and regions in January 2020 and a full review of performance at Rugby World Cup 2019, where rankings upsets and the impressive performances in particular of Japan, Fiji, Uruguay, Tonga and Georgia cut the performance gap, with the average winning margin between established and emerging unions decreasing in comparison with 2015 benchmarks.

The Americas will deliver two direct places, while Oceania will deliver a direct qualifier with a further direct place available following a play-off with Asia. The Rugby Europe Championship (two direct places), Rugby Africa Cup (one direct place) and Final Qualification Tournament (one direct place) will provide the other qualifiers. Further details are provided below.

RWC 2023 qualification principles

  • Americas: the Americas will qualify two teams by September 2022. The third best team in the region will enter the Final Qualification Tournament – Americas 1 & Americas 2
  • Europe: the existing Rugby Europe Championship will have two qualifying places, with the two best teams in March 2022 qualifying directly and the third placed entering the Final Qualification Tournament – Europe 1 & Europe 2 
  • Africa: the Rugby Africa Cup 2022 winner will qualify directly and the runner-up team will go to Final Qualification – Africa 1
  • Oceania: a home and away play-off between Tonga and Samoa in 2021 will determine the direct qualifier for the Oceania region. – Oceania 1
    The loser will then play the Oceania Rugby Cup 2021 winner in the highest ranked team’s country with the eventual winner contesting Asia / Pacific (see below) as Oceania 2
  • Asia / Pacific: the winner of the Asian Rugby Men’s Championship 2021 will play Oceania 2 home and away. The winner on aggregate will determine the qualifier and the loser will go to Final Qualification – Asia / Pacific 1
  • Final Qualification Tournament: the tournament in November 2022 will feature four teams playing in a round-robin format with the winner qualifying for RWC 2023 – Final Qualification winner


Teams already qualified: South Africa, England, New Zealand, Wales, Japan, France (host), Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Argentina, Fiji

World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: “With the global pandemic having halted most rugby activity, confirmation of the global qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2023 provides a beacon of excitement for all, including players and fans.

“The process that has been developed via full consultation with our regional associations and member unions will provide a genuine opportunity for full member unions to qualify for our showcase men’s 15s event.

“Maximising existing regional competitions, the process is good for regions and unions in managing costs for organisers and participants alike, which is important as we all recover from the global pandemic.

“On behalf of World Rugby, I’d like to wish all teams involved the best of luck on their journey to France 2023.”

Rugby World Cup France 2023 CEO Claude Atcher added: “This qualification process gives emerging unions an opportunity to take part in our sport’s biggest competition.

“The success of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan and performances by the host nation is a testimony of rugby’s expansion globally. As the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is about to be won, I welcome this optimistic prospect of reconnecting with the excitement of our sport. This is the start of our journey towards France 2023, which will be the best tournament ever delivered.”

Final details of the regional competition formats and dates will be announced in due course.

Official Press Release from World Rugby

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6 Nations

Official. Eddie Jones signs new England Deal.

Official.

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(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England men’s head coach Eddie Jones and the RFU have agreed a contract extension which will see him continue his role until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
 
Jones joined England Rugby at the end of 2015 and has coached the men’s national side on 54 occasions winning 42, drawing one and losing 11 – giving him a win ratio of 78%, the highest in the history of England coaches.
 
Under Jones, England has won two Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam in 2016, a 3-0 away Test series win against Australia in the same year, an unbeaten run of 18 matches equalling New Zealand’s record and were finalists at last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan. 
 
Jones said: “The extension is a great honour for me, but in the current environment, it is only right to acknowledge what a difficult time the world is facing.  We are all looking forward to a time when we can get back to playing rugby and use the sport as a force for good in bringing people back together. I never thought coming here four years ago I would be doing a second four years but the circumstances are right. Obviously it is important for the team that we keep improving and my focus will be solely on that.
 
“I am excited about raising the standards again. We have a great team. We set out four years ago to be the best team in the world and unfortunately we missed that by 80 minutes. Now we want to be the team that is remembered as being the greatest team the game has ever seen. It’s a big ambition but I believe we are capable of doing it. We have players with an enhanced reputation, we have a team that is expected to do well, so it’s a great opportunity for us to keep moving forward.”
 
Bill Sweeney, RFU CEO said: “My thoughts and those of all of us at the RFU are with everyone impacted by COVID-19, both across the country at large but also within our own rugby union community. In exceptionally difficult times, we are pleased to be sharing some good news.  We are delighted that Eddie will continue as head coach to run England’s campaign to take us to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. His record since joining speaks for itself and he has proven why he is one of the best coaches in world rugby. The progress shown by England since 2015 has been indisputable and having fielded the youngest-ever team to play in a World Cup final, we know even more growth is possible. We are all excited by what this squad can do and having Eddie leading the team is very important to us. 
 
“We reached an understanding soon after returning from Japan but there were some things that we wanted to make sure worked for both sides. We have announced Eddie’s contract extension a few weeks later than planned as our focus was diverted to support the English rugby community during this difficult time, we are now turning our attention to developing plans to support the rebooting of rugby and a winning England team will provide a vital role in that.”
 
Ahead of the Guinness Six Nations Jones confirmed Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot would join Steve Borthwick and John Mitchell as his assistant coaches. Jason Ryles will join later in the year as skills coach following Borthwick’s departure towards the end of the season.

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International

Ireland Climb in Latest World Rankings

Ireland have had the biggest boost in the latest World Rugby Rankings ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup draw later this year

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(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Ireland have leapfrogged Wales in the latest World Rugby Rankings of the the 2023 Rugby World Cup draw in November of this year.

The boys in green have taken over the No 4 spot in the rankings following their 24-14 win over Wales in the Six Nations over the weekend, with their opponents dropping down to fifth. 

It is a major boost for the Irish and gives them something to hold on to heading into the rest of this year’s fixtures as they are now currently in the top seeds ahead of the draw for the pool stages of France 2023. 

World Rugby announced recently that they will hold the draw later this year meaning that teams will have less time to climb the rankings than last time around when they had 18 months between the previous World Cup and the draw for the next one. 

A total of twelve teams will head into the draw as seeds in three brackets with the top four in the rankings being first seeds, meaning as of now Wales would be second seeds along with France, Australia and Japan. 

While Scotland, Argentina, Italy and Fiji are in the third bracket, with the remainder of the teams to be decided through different qualifiers over the next three years. 

Elsewhere in the rankings Georgia have moved up ahead of Italy, following the former’s latest two defeats in the Six Nations, while the biggest risers have been Portugal, who have moved from 22nd to 20th, but Russia have dived from 20th to 25th. 

Ireland will be hoping to continue their perfect start to the Six Nations campaign when they take on the third-ranked team England away from home, whom they may look to overtake in the rankings before the draw. 

It is certainly heating up between the Six Nations teams as they try to be the best-placed behind South Africa and New Zealand, who take the first and second spots, but won’t play until the summer.

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