"I thought it was just a nonsense, until I got out to Japan and suddenly realised" 1 month ago

"I thought it was just a nonsense, until I got out to Japan and suddenly realised"

The IRFU is the cash cow for the provinces and it needed to get some games in. Unfortunately, it came at the cost of the national team.

In the summer of 2017, Joe Schmidt took his Ireland team to Japan for two Test matches. The idea was to give himself and his coaches, and backroom staff, a feel for the place well in advance of the World Cup.

As it turned out, 14 players named in the 31-man squad would make the final cut for the World Cup, two years later. Weather conditions would be different, of course, as the 2017 games were played in June while the World Cup was held in September and October.

Two years on from that winning tour of the USA and Japan, Schmidt took another 31-man squad to 'The Land of the Rising Sun'. Jones would make the trip too, but as backs coach with Rassie Erasmus' South Africa.

The former Munster and Ireland star joined Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery on the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby and spoke about the Springboks' preparations for the tournament and the games that faced them.

Jones noted how a warm-up game in Japan, against Jamie Joseph's side, gave his team an inkling of what match conditions would be like over the first few weeks. Ireland captain Rory Best has also spoken to the media since his side's quarter final exit and one comment in particular highlights a big flaw in Ireland's planning.

(Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

The IRFU, fuelled by the need to play some August Test matches to make up for the financial hit of having no November internationals at the Aviva Stadium, set up World Cup warm-up games against Italy and Wales.

There would also be two warm-ups in the UK, against England and Wales, as well as a warm-weather camp in Portugal. To simulate the expected humidity of autumnal Japan, Irish players went old-school by flogging it around Portugal, and the Carton House training facilities, in black plastic bags.

All well and good, but what about playing a warm-up game in Japan? How about heading over a week or two earlier, like the World Cup winning Springboks, to get a true feel for the place. On South Africa's preparations, Jones commented:

"A lot of that warm-up game [against Japan] was that it gave us a bit of an advantage. You got a feel for the conditions. It was so hot and humid.

"It wasn't like wet weather that you'd associate from playing somewhere like Galway. The ball became like a bar of soap. It was so tough. And discovering that, in that game, made us say, 'Okay, teams are going to make that mistake'.

"And if you look at it, a lot of teams tried to play too much rugby in those early pool games. How many times were people saying afterwards, 'There are so many handling errors. Is it the pressure?' It's just that the ball was so slippery."

Ireland, like so many other countries that got on the ground too late, soon realised they were quite literally dealing with a whole new ball game. During an appearance on RTE's Game On show, Ireland captain Rory Best admitted:

"We nailed the heat in Portugal but we possibly underestimated the effect the humidity would have, not on our conditioning but on our ability to handle the ball.

"I'm not big into gimmicks and when I heard about Wales were using baby oil on the ball, I thought it was just a nonsense - until I got out there and suddenly realised. I was drying my hands to throw the ball in but by the time you picked the ball up your hands were soaking because you were sweating so much.

"I think we could maybe have trained with dry balls to get confidence, but also trained with the ball soaking wet, to work out how our skill level could be improved by doing this."

While Ireland were trying to prove their game had evolved and that they were not purely a box-kicking and set-piece team, South Africa assessed the conditions and opted to play to those strengths.

Ireland conceded 79 turnovers in their five games, with an astonishing 50 of them coming from handling errors. Bundee Aki (4) averaged a handling error every 32 minutes. For Keith Earls (8) it was one every 40 minutes. These were two of Ireland's most reliable backs heading into the tournament.

Bundee Aki

Joe Schmidt's men were not the only ones taken by surprise by the official Gilbert ball being almost impossible to hold onto, but it is surprising that a man of his fine detail would be caught out by such an occurrence. The Scots took to lathering balls in shampoo, for training drills, but it did not help them much and they exited at the pool stages. Ireland would be put out of their misery in the quarter finals, getting trounced 46-14 by New Zealand.

In the end - as it has been noted - South Africa got to the final with a style of play that was reminiscent of Ireland at their most clinical and focused under Schmidt. They cared little of the outside grumbles and just marched ominously to the final.

Ireland had four years to plan for this World Cup and you have to wonder why the option of a warm-up game in Japan was not seriously considered. The Boks were paid by the Japanese rugby union to travel over early but Ireland would have had other options.

The likes of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji would have been decent opponents to line up. Perhaps there was the dread of injuries or perhaps it was the IRFU wishing to dearly to clutch onto the home Test match earners (they had seven in 2018 compared to just four this year).

As for the Springboks and that minimised risk game-plan, Jones dismisses the notion that South Africa made any dramatics changes from their torpid semi-final win over Wales to their more open final victory over England.

Put simply, South Africa just planned for the conditions and team and played accordingly.


WATCH THAT HOUSE OF RUGBY INTERVIEW WITH FELIX JONES HERE:

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Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery look back on all the Champions Cup action and are joined in the House of Rugby studio by Springboks coach Felix Jones.