PLEASE don’t be fooled by all the excuses that are doing the rounds.
Ireland didn’t lose this game, Japan won it. In fact what happened should not have gone down as a shock, especially to those who claim they know anything about rugby.
Maybe now people might understand why months ago I stated that Ireland’s chances of winning this World Cup were very slim. The very reason why we reached number one in the world rankings is the very reason we will be lucky to make the quarter-finals.
Joe Schmidt might well be the most successful Irish coach in history but his inability to allow his players to step outside his regimental playbook will see him departing his post on a very negative note. The minimum requirement heading into this tournament was that we reach the semi-finals and realistically that is now nothing more than a whimsical dream.
I hope I am wrong, but all the signs are now firmly pointing at us departing Japan after the quarter-finals, or dear I even say it before them. Wouldn’t that be some embarrassment?
For the last few years, most of the other serious contenders were exclusively concentrating on their preparations for the World Cup. Schmidt, on the other hand, was focused on winning and not experimenting with new ways of playing a sport that is ever-evolving.
Yes, there is a long way to go but the mental damage that was inflected on Saturday is probably beyond repair. Combined with the trouncing by England in the recent warm-up there is now a strain of negativity and doubt that not many sides can recover from.
When Ireland are allowed dictate the pace and their smash it up/one-out runner style of gaining territory is accepted by those they play against, they can win at a canter. Their victories are not pretty, however, they are effective, like they were against Scotland.
When the game is unchained from a structure, as it was on Saturday, they struggle and end up running about like dazzled rabbits.
To have emerged with a losing bonus point is something Schmidt should be thanking his lucky stars about. Were it not for two bounces of the ball that went against the hosts, three missed penalty opportunities and a try-saving tackle from Munster’s Player of the Decade Keith Earls, the challenge of reaching the knockout stages would be considerably harder.
The only Irish qualified player who could have saved Ireland’s blushes on Saturday was probably sitting in his front room watching his TV in Paris, sipping coffee and eating some freshly baked croissants. How Simon Zebo is not in Japan is a fundamental flaw in selection policy that the IRFU must change.
Not only does Zebo have the pace and skill to do something extraordinary in a moment of crisis he also has the balls to ignore the rules and step outside the box. Zebo is a rebel, which is what we need now, not yes men.
At this stage, I would also mention Devin Toner. As a player who gave every inch of his 6’ 11” frame to helping Ireland achieve Grand Slams and Triple Crowns over the last decade it is profoundly wrong he was left at home. The senior players were surely not happy with his exclusion. It's just a shame they didn’t voice their concerns before the squad was announced.
The next few days for those in the Irish camp are not going to be easy and now that there is zero room for any kind of error, we will see how Schmidt, Rory Best as captain and the more senior players cope.
One of the hardest things I have to do in these columns is rate players. On many occasions, I was there myself and my performance fell well below the required level but I must call it as I see it.
I will begin with Rory Best and I am not going to bore you with what the man has achieved for his country. Putting it quite simply Best at 38 should not be on the pitch.
Of the other more senior players who will be lucky to regain their starting jersey, I would put Conor Murray, who seems to have had all that was great about how he played coached out of him, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony (who just doesn’t seem right) and Cian Healy on the bench. Maybe they are just trying too hard, but the team needs more.
The team review would not have been a pleasurable experience and I really, really, really hope there is no blame placed upon the ref, the weather, the balls, the pitch or whatever teams who are completely outclassed look to hide behind these days. Excuses are a sign of weakness.
Ireland were simply beaten on the day by a team who wanted it more, played better and clearly showed that the passion that some coaches are trying to neutralise is still crucial.
It was very sad to hear that Jack Conan must return home after the severity of his foot injury was revealed by Schmidt. One minute you're riding high on the crest of a wave, living your dream by playing in a World Cup in Japan and the next your packing your bags, waving goodbye to your fellow teammates and boarding a plane back to Dublin. The man must be devastated.
Conan is to be replaced by Jordi Murphy who will have little impact on the playing surface.
Every game in Ireland's pool now suddenly becomes relevant. Next up are the Russians who a good AIL side would beat, so it will all boil down to the final game when Ireland lock horns with Samoa.
Two bonus-point wins is what is required now, and the bubble wrap that Sexton finds himself covered in will need to be removed. The luxury of not playing him has suddenly expired.