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Ireland can come good if they shake fear factor

Time to reflect: Joe Schmidt
Time to reflect: Joe Schmidt

By Tony Ward

Three games down and it's been extremes in emotion and performance for everyone concerned. We are in a dilemma and it's not pretty. I do not believe it to be 2007 revisited nor indeed the Millennium Stadium four years ago when circumstances were very different. We are not in a crisis but we are in a rut with so much of it of our own making.

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At the end of the day the buck stops with the players as they are the only ones positioned between the white lines to do anything about it. That said, management are far from exempt from culpability given what has transpired so far and, make no mistake, the main man needs to take a long, hard look at himself in the bedroom mirror back at base.

Despite the almost perfect start against the Scots, the negativity emanating from the Irish camp throughout this tournament has been stifling.

If it's not the humidity it's the four and six-day turnarounds. If it's not injuries it's the sinister referee. EVERY team at this intense tournament, intense by its very nature, has to deal with so many differing variables but the common denominator is identical issues shared and I defy anyone to argue otherwise.

To highlight any referee, whether it be Angus Gardner or Nigel Owens, smacks of paranoia in the extreme and by that I mean that if we are to now go the route of having penalty decisions scrutinised post-match to the extent that World Rugby determines, in Joe Schmidt's words, "we were penalised four times for offside (against the Japanese) and three of those were incorrect calls. It's unusual for us to have a higher penalty count than our opponents".

So, what of the number of incidents where penalties might have been awarded by the referee or indeed his assistant (Jerome Garces)? Do we now after every match have World Rugby releasing figures on penalties that should and should not have been blown in any given 80 minutes?

Give us a break. Yes, of course referees have their idiosyncrasies and meticulous coaches like Schmidt analyse those quirks to the nth degree. But they are quirks and nothing more sinister than that.

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The point is that when there is such an ongoing emphasis on 'how we were done' post-match, it seeps into the mindset of the squad. Funny how in Schmidt's opinion "Wayne (Barnes) did a super job (in Ireland v Scotland)". I wonder why?

Against the host nation and more particularly against the Russians, we played like a squad carrying the world of worries on our shoulders. We are better than that. In the blink of an eyelid Jordan Larmour showed what an inside shimmy and outside step can create when opening the door for Keith Earls to send Garry Ringrose clear for the most insightful try of the five for me against the Russians.

And whatever about his personal agenda, Simon Zebo is not far off when he suggests: "In attack we just lack a freedom to express ourselves. Joe has his structures and systems and the way he wants to play and put pressure on teams."

No argument there but it has served us well in taking us to this point.

However, in order to go where no Irish squad has gone before we need to be bold and to trust in the skill-set we know to be there and specifically in the guise of Larmour, Andrew Conway (along with James Ryan our most consistent performer to date), Earls, Jacob Stockdale and Ringrose - players who could slot comfortably into any Sevens set up.

There is definitely a fear factor which from the outside looks like excessive control from the coaching think tank. We can still maintain our keep ball principles upon which Schmidt's system (when played with the appropriate intensity) thrives.

Throwing off the shackles suggests something extreme but that is not what this side needs and we are too far into the tournament for that.

However, a little mental TLC in private whereby inventiveness down the outside centre and wider channels is encouraged rather than shunned out of fear as is currently the case irrespective of any in camp soundings to the contrary.

To put it in the most simplistic terms, wouldn't it be lovely to see an Irish team on the world stage playing with a smile on its face and playing the moment rather than the process? If there's one word in the modern vernacular I detest it's that word, process. I was brought up in rugby and soccer to the principle of attacking space and looking through dexterity of foot and sleight of hand to seek it out and create where and when it didn't exist.

What has changed is professionalism I guess, coaches controlling players through the dreaded process. I would love to have been a professional sportsman had that opportunity prevailed. I know I would have been as dedicated as any player but in all fairness I would have been a nightmare for any coach. Joe wouldn't have had me within a mile of Carton House.

I guess the point here is the middle line between rugby off a computer and the game played with the appropriate intensity but equally from the heart. The All Blacks are not infallible, they make mistakes, but they are the very best because of those mistakes. Fear is not a factor.

I still believe in the Joe that has got us to this point and in his squad delivering a performance of which we can all be proud. In the last two games they have sold themselves short but there is a big one (as against the Scots) bubbling under.

The Samoan challenge should look after itself and then follows a showdown set to grind the nation to a halt. Time to unleash the shackles and let wounded pride heal itself.

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