Whether it’s Storm Lorenzo or our rugby team, Irish people are, by nature, a pessimistic bunch. We don’t ever like to appear too confident in ourselves and the best way to prepare is to prepare for the worst. It feels already that’s the way people are starting to view a quarter-final against the All Blacks or the Springboks.
Everybody will have expected the performance against Russia to be of a high enough quality to put the Japan game more fully in the rearview mirror, but it wasn’t to be.
In international rugby it’s very rare that you bulldoze a side from start to finish, but really in that middle to last quarter you would have hoped to have at least a few more tries scored just to make things look a bit more convincing, even if that fourth try had come that little bit earlier to ease the tension.
Had that happened, then the mood of the nation may well have been slightly more in line with the word coming out of camp.
I’ve heard a bit of criticism directed towards players who said it was a decent showing and job done. I can understand the frustration. Fans know that the players we have can be, and are capable of, much better than what we’ve seen in the last two games, but it doesn’t do any good for them to be facing the media and throwing out negativity for nine straight days.
Sometimes you do need the power of positive thinking, visualisation and repetition of those buzz words that people hate, even if you know it’s the last thing people at home want to hear. If you allow a negative attitude to fester, if you speak it into existence, it grows and does nobody any good. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rory Best spoke on Friday of how mistakes breed mistakes and it’s the same with a lack of confidence.
With the time difference and being so far away, it’s maybe that bit easier to avoid the worry at home. But the players have to believe that they’re not far from the peak of their powers and still primed to do what they’ve been planning for these past four years. It might jar a bit with fans and media, but that’s more important than giving the soundbites people want to hear.
When I was going through a run of poor form, I’d do whatever I could to get back to the basics, back to what I was good at. You can get so focused on ‘work-ons’ that you lose sight of what it actually is that got you here. I’d have clips of big turnovers, defensive sets, carrying the ball in space, even a few tries and stuff that reminds you of what you’ve done and what you’re good at.
That’s what I’m seeing, a side that looks like they need something to just put that spring back in their step.
When I went to the World Cup four years ago, even for the injuries we got, it still felt like we put such an amount of our emotional energy into beating France that when we went again for Argentina, it wasn’t there. We were missing players, but those that played didn’t do what we were capable of either.
Maybe Scotland was the same this time around. It was pitched as the game that Ireland’s pool would hinge upon for two-and-a-half years, and to win it and win so emphatically, there’s no doubt been a drop since.
It’s why I believe the mini-break in the schedule could be a huge thing for the squad. They’re a tight group and they know each other inside out, it’s not like they needed to get to know each other or anything.
But there’s a weight of responsibility when you’re at a tournament like this. The pressure of a World Cup, the scrutiny that you’re under for two months, it’s a different thing to deal with and it’s important to get away from it when you can.
They’ll have gone out and enjoyed each other’s company over the weekend and hopefully come back onto the training paddock with a spring in their step and ready to do the business.
Regardless of what we’ve seen the past two weeks, I still feel we’ll beat Samoa, still feel that we’ll get the four tries and be sat here next week talking about a spot in the quarter-finals.
In a week with a bad loss and a short turnaround, I thought we really saw the importance of Johnny Sexton once again.
It’ll have been an honour for him to have captained the side from the start for the first time and I thought he handled the whole week well.
He wasn’t involved in the loss to Japan but straight off the bat he was able to come out and start shifting the narrative.
He has the experience of twice going through the pools unbeaten, so when he came out and said that ultimately the loss could be a blessing in disguise, it’s a different spin, but it’s one to which people will have genuinely listened and taken on board.
When something bad happens to a squad, an unexpected loss or the like, to have someone who can put a positive spin on it can be a huge help.
That shows real leadership, and it’s a huge thing for Joe Schmidt to have somebody alongside Rory Best with that kind of clout. Even to see him back in the side to take on Russia will have been a significant boost for them.
There are those type of players that you know, no matter who else is selected in the team, if they are there, you have a shot. It’s like with England and the likes of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi, when Johnny is there, it just raises the level of belief.
It’s no coincidence that Ireland’s best rugby of this tournament — against Scotland — has come in the 90 minutes when they’ve had Sexton at 10, and that ropey third quarter of the game against Russia came directly after his half-time substitution.
We’re now at the stage where players really have to be firing. There can be no more cotton wool here.
With the quarter-final cited as the be all and end all of this campaign for so long, the pressure heaped on by carrying players who aren’t fit becomes too much to risk. But even with Robbie Henshaw to come back and good news on Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy, it’s still Sexton, whose readiness to guide Ireland through the remainder of their way in Japan, who is paramount.
Games against the likes of Russia are always pitched as a chance for players to stake a claim for the bigger matches ahead, but there won’t have been too many who came away feeling that they pressed their case for Joe Schmidt to change what he has had in his head as the best 23 he can throw out there.
There was one exception for me — Rhys Ruddock.
More often than not he’s normally playing in games where the opposition isn’t the No.1 side in the world, but he’s never let Ireland down and he’s never let Schmidt down.
I’ve been a fan of Ruddock’s for a long time. I remember I was on my first tour with Ireland when he came out to join us in Australia straight from the Under-20s. You’d be watching him in the gym, and even at that age he had what we called man-strength. He was a monster and he’s hard as nails despite being such a genuine lovely fella.
With a coach who prides himself on rewarding consistency, there is an argument to be made that Ruddock’s form is such to require a back-row rejig.
Before this tournament, I was one of the people saying Josh van der Flier had to start the big games, but now, if you need to get Rhys in there somewhere, maybe it’s as an openside that is most likely.
He’s certainly a player who can disrupt the opposition as a seven, and when you see him doing things like slowing the ball up in the tackle before the carrier can even get to ground, you know you have someone who is determined to win those small battles.
Whenever Joe has to pick his best team, I think that might just be the change.