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Neil Francis: Ireland must remember what they're good at to mount a World Cup challenge

 

Hard to watch: Ireland’s players look on at Welsh celebrations last weekend
Hard to watch: Ireland’s players look on at Welsh celebrations last weekend

By Neil Francis

During the week I looked back over my match notebooks - I had a moment that almost made me blush. At half time in the French game at the Aviva, with Ireland leading 19-0, I wrote "Back in the groove - woo hoo" - ahem!

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The big winners in Cardiff, apart from the plastic poncho salesmen, were the Irish provinces. If anger is an energy, well, Leinster and Munster should have enough volition to go all the way to the final in Newcastle.

One of the questions that has not been asked is where are Ireland with their strength and conditioning cycle? Where are they on the graph in terms of their physical fitness? Ireland never looked sharp mentally but, disturbingly, they never looked sharp physically either.

Last Saturday's pitiful performance was hard to gauge. Only England managed an 80 minute performance in the championship in the serious games and that unfortunately came against us.

Wales never managed to be consistent over any of their performances - but their effort never flagged and this was obvious in their performance against Scotland when the game strategically and tactically meandered away from them, but still their sense of purpose and resolve never deviated.

Confidence is a real force in sport and particularly so with the Welsh.

Warren Gatland did not have to rely on a GPS device in the back of his players' jerseys to know that someone like Alun Wyn Jones would stay the course.

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Looking forward to the World Cup, the trick is to maintain whatever it is that you have.

Confidence and momentum can be gone like a puff of wind in an 80 minute window.

The day after Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin, Steve Hansen, well versed with the weight of expectation, handed out some perspective.

Since the All Black Invincibles of 1924, New Zealand have been winning. They have winning records against every major rugby nation.

If they lose a match, they are still expected to win the dozen or so matches that they will play in that season. They win because they are conditioned to and expected to win.

Depending on your outlook, that could sit easy on your shoulders or it may weigh you down. Either way, the All Blacks have lived with it for over 100 years. I know of no other team in the history of sport who win so often with such ease of consistency.

"How," mused Hansen, "would Ireland deal with that burden now that they were the best team in the world?"

Well, they lasted 77 days until they fell off their perch.

Shades of the young bull and the old bull sitting on top of the hill looking down on the field of cows. Of course, we didn't know what to do or how to do it, and neither will Wales.

Ireland's position, while disappointing, is recoverable. In six months' time anything can happen. It has happened already.

Coming into any major tournament from six months out, the planning of every single minute from now until then with military and scientific precision isn't worth a toss.

You can arrive as the hottest favourites or as a cert to go out in the early stages and that can change on the back of a training ground injury to a bus arriving a few minutes late for the match. In 2007, England arrived in France to defend their crown as World Champions. They had a couple of dreadful seasons in between World Cups and in the 2007 Six Nations got duffed 43-14 by Ireland and had 27 points put on them by Wales in the last game of the season. Brian Ashton was almost doing as good a job on England as he had with Ireland.

England started their pool games with a 36-0 stuffing by South Africa and struggled more definitively than the scoreline suggests against USA (28-10), Tonga (36-20) and Samoa (44-22).

They stank the place out with the quality of their performances. They did, however, navigate their way past Australia on a 12-10 scoreline and then did the unthinkable by beating France in their own competition at the semi-final stage (14-9) and suddenly, against all expectation and form, England were in the World Cup final. A little player revolt and a smidgeon of some British bulldog spirit and suddenly they are at the summit.

Back in 1991 we finished joint last with Wales in the Championship and so we garnered a point each after a miserable draw but finished ahead of the Welsh on superior points difference.

Back then you really did have something to complain about.

If ever any of us were thinking about winning 23 out of 26 Test matches like the current team, it would have been with the assistance of some REM dreams.

Later in July we managed to hold mighty Namibia to just 15-6 and 26-15 to lose the Test series - that took some doing. We did all nearly die from food poisoning before both Tests. If Joe can use that excuse, so can we.

And so when the World Cup came about in October there was great expectation - great expectation that we would get thrashed.

Australia had put 63 points on Wales during the summer and duly went to Cardiff and beat Wales 38-3 in the pool game.

They came to Dublin on the cusp of greatness - one of the greatest teams of all time - the small matter of fixture fulfilment against us before the serious matter of taking on the All Blacks in the semi-final.

The fact that Ireland led the game 18-15 with 90 seconds on the clock tells you if nothing else does that strange things happen in big games.

No form coming into the World Cup and a string of dispiriting losses and yet… if you get a bad run of form and confidence deserts you, it can be like turning the Titanic around or sometimes it can change at the drop of a hat. Wales did finish second from bottom in the Six Nations in 2017.

Ireland's losses to England and Wales were dispiriting. England are certainly the best equipped side to go to Japan but cannot go there absolutely sure of themselves.

Wales put in a shift and kept going but, my God, that was a cheap Grand Slam where their chief opponents England and Ireland never got one punch off that floored the men in red - everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face, right?

Losing the campaign will add fidelity to Joe's mood. Ireland are quick ball junkies and are a clever and physical side that can hold the ball and pass accurately - Schmidt's side forgot themselves a bit in the last month or so.

They will need to remember and reinforce what they are good at - being clever! Choosing wet and windy conditions and trying to play dry day football isn't clever.

Ireland, if they want to be, will be dangerous in Japan.

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