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Ireland running out of time to find form... as is Tommy Bowe

By Neil Francis

Published 10/09/2015

Nightmare farewell: Paul O’Connell is applauded off the Aviva Stadium pitch by victorious England players on his last appearance for Ireland in Dublin
Nightmare farewell: Paul O’Connell is applauded off the Aviva Stadium pitch by victorious England players on his last appearance for Ireland in Dublin

A labyrinth of uncertainty envelopes the island. Our sense of certainty that Ireland will sell themselves in this World Cup at the right moment stutters as we look for a lifeboat of hope. I'm not sure if I can help you either.

It is one of those inescapable facts of life that form comes and goes and Joe Schmidt is just short of going to see the three witches out on the heath to see what is in store.

The only certainty about form in the run-up to this tournament is that the favourites put 41 points on the second favourites less than a month ago. A performance of menace and cold-blooded efficiency. New Zealand travel north with no inner turmoil or doubt or waffle about peaking or mutterings from their home support.

Every other country in the competition comes to the table in disarray. Form ranging from patchy to pathetic. South Africa, France, Wales, Ireland and even England who are not sure of the merit of their victory over the Irish last Saturday - everyone is playing rubbish rugby.

Some of the reasoning behind Ireland's abject display was amazing. Remember, this was an England versus Ireland match in Twickenham. In our calendar year, we wait in anticipation for months for this fixture. A practice match? A warm-up? I can't think of any sporting occasion that is less friendly and more competitive.

Did you think that they were holding something back? It goes against instinct if any player held anything in reserve.

It is true that one or two players had minor physical afflictions but by emptying the bench it robbed us all of the chance to see if Ireland could complete the turnaround.

Back to 15-13 midway through the second-half and suddenly the team is changed and the complexion of the game turns. How much energy does it really save?

Some people told me that Ireland are not that advanced in their cycle and that they will peak and hit their straps for the France game and possibly the quarter-final. Joe is pretty good at getting his best team to play its best rugby at the most important times. I'm not sure the game is that sophisticated in its preparation.

In 2007, England, the defending champions, arrived in France with a fanfare. They were awful. They really struggled - they lost 36-0 to South Africa and were on the right side of some flattering scorelines against Tonga (36-20), Samoa (44-22) and the USA (28-10) where they just got out of jail in the last 20 minutes of all of those games.

England's state-of-the-art preparations meant nothing. They played like drains for the pool stages and should really have been sent packing.

None of the English players could tell you how they got to the final that year. A 12-10 sneak over Australia got them to the semis - a pulse and a smidgeon of returning confidence. They ruined the show in France as they trampled over their hosts 14-9.

The 15-6 loss to South Africa in the decider was a lot closer than the scoreline suggests. The question still remains - how could they turn up and play so badly in the pool stages and then become so difficult to beat? Aiming to peak at a certain time? It's guesswork!

The answer is simple - sophisticated preparations and planning are not worth a thing when it comes to this tournament. Luck and providence have a greater say.

As we supped on the disappointment of a match last week that could have been so much more than the eight-point margin it was, did Joe tell his team to hold back a bit? No, he did not. On that basis, where is this team now?

It's hard to figure out where his team is at the moment mentally. I always think that even though a task like scrummaging is a unit skill it is still a mental process. The Irish pack scrummaged well last Saturday.

Tackling too is a mental process. Ireland missed 22 tackles last Saturday which I thought was bad until I realised that they had missed 27 in the corresponding fixture in March last season. They also missed 23 against the French. Maybe Ireland aren't a good defensive team in reality because they miss more tackles than anyone - yet still won the Six Nations last season.

England's line speed and determination in the tackle was really good. They flooded numbers into the drop zone. They got in the way cleverly and legally. None of our chasers got close. Teams are figuring out what Ireland are doing and planning for it.

This brings us onto our best kick-chaser. I find it hard to fathom how badly Tommy Bowe performed at Twickenham. If Ireland were playing England again next Saturday, Joe would drop him - simple as that.

There were far too many errors to list them all but Bowe's plight mirrors Ireland's predicament. A first-class player who we know can perform on the highest stage. A player who can recover himself. A player who is so far away from World Cup form that the gap may be too far to bridge.

Nine days to find a trip switch.

Belfast Telegraph

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