No energy, no intensity and little hope for Joe Schmidt's Ireland 8 months ago

No energy, no intensity and little hope for Joe Schmidt's Ireland

They wanted the roof open and when it rains it well and truly pours for Ireland.

Joe Schmidt's side were incredible last year and dropped just one game in a year that included wins over New Zealand, two over Australia and a clean sweep over the Six Nations.

Ireland were rightfully being talked about as the best team in the world then England came to Dublin and smacked them around the Aviva Stadium in a one-sided drubbing.

From there, things didn't improve. They scraped by Scotland thanks to some individual brilliance from Joey Carbery. They trudged their way past a hapless Italian team that hasn't won a game in four years. They came out firing against a bumbling French side and looked to have got things back on track before laying a gigantic egg against Wales in Cardiff.

Everything to play for, not a whole lot to lose given they were still in the championship hunt and from the first minute it was a disaster.

Hadleigh Parkes scooped up a deft chip kick from Gareth Anscombe and crossed for Wales first try of the game and it did not improve from there.

Nine turnovers to four. 39% possession for a team that usually boasts over 60%. Missed tackles. Turnovers. Eight penalties conceded when they usually try keep their total count under 10.

 

'No energy, no intensity' was how Alan Quinlan described it on commentary.

Then the second-half came and Johnny Sexton is throwing passes behind targets, kicking balls out on the full, restarts going dead.

Conor Murray had a golden opportunity to score and somehow the ball bobbled up out of the ruck and out to touch just metres away. Jacob Stockdale was knocking balls on. Bundee Aki was bereft of ideas that didn't involve burying his head into contact.

It was a disaster, from the first minute until the last. Even from Schmidt, one of the very best coaches in international rugby, is leaving Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and Rob Kearney on until the 65th minute while Ireland lie deep in the midst of a 22-point hole with a clock ticking ever faster.

Best struggled mightily and when you have a player like Larmour on the bench and you need to score tries to stand any semblance of a chance of coming back into the game, why leave him on the bench for so long?

Ireland lost to a Wales team that was riding a 13 game winning streak, with a Grand Slam on the line and is playing at the Principality Stadium where they have always been tough to beat.

There's no shame in losing to a side like that but Ireland will be sickened by just how inept they were and just how hopeless they were in attack against a good defence.

Ultimately, with three Six Nations titles and a Grand Slam across five years, this Irish squad under Schmidt will ultimately be judged on how they fare the Rugby World Cup but as a pre-cursor this was Ireland's worst tournament in the Schmidt era.

The 2016 campaign was clearly a rebuild after losing various players to injury and retirement but this was a team that did a clean sweep in November and were poised for one more big campaign before having what should be their biggest ever run at a Rugby World Cup.

But they left us with so many more questions than answers.

For instance, last year we got all the answers we needed from this Irish team.

Depth? Dan Leavy was a third choice openside and was one of the best players of the tournament.

Young players coming through to push and drive competition? James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Josh van der Flier, Joey Carbery, Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, Tadhg Furlong, Jordan Larmour and the list goes on.

World class players? Sexton, Murray, Furlong, Ryan, Stockdale, O'Mahony, more than enough to seriously compete.

But now we're just left with so many more questions?

Why does the line-out consistently malfunction without Devin Toner? What is going on with the backrow and why does Schmidt change it up so much? Why have they struggled for creativity in the centres? What has happened to World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton? Why do they look such a shadow of a team that was the best side in World Rugby last year?

The only real change that has happened since November is Schmidt's decision to step down and has that sent doubt throughout the squad into what's next?

Whatever it is, it does not look promising as that's now four games out of five where Ireland have looked less than stellar and there now must be serious questions over their credentials as World Cup contenders.

There's a lot of time between now and then, and maybe the players can rediscover some form and confidence with three Irish teams in the Champions Cup knockout stages, maybe Schmidt can go back to the drawing board and figure how to get this train back on the track with still a lot of time to go before the World Cup, but now Ireland must lick their wounds. And their cuts run deep.