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Ruaidhri O'Connor: Where it has all gone wrong for Joe Schmidt... and why

Drop off: Joe Schmidt has seen Ireland lose form at the worst possible time
Drop off: Joe Schmidt has seen Ireland lose form at the worst possible time

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was the morning after the night before and if Steve Hansen was perturbed by what he'd witnessed at the Aviva Stadium, he didn't look it. Sitting in a Blanchardstown hotel, the All Blacks' coach quietly laid down a challenge to Ireland to handle the mantle as the world's top team as he heaped praise on Joe Schmidt's men.

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The world champions remained the top team on the rankings table, but eight days later the Irish swept the boards at the World Rugby awards; the 2018 Team of the Year, coached by the 2018 Coach of the Year and spearheaded by the 2018 Player of the Year.

The next day, Schmidt announced his decision to finish coaching after the World Cup, deciding it was better to get the news out in the open.

Ireland have never gone into a World Cup year in better shape, but then along came England.

Within 91 seconds, all of the confidence and momentum built up in the previous 12 months came crashing down at the Aviva Stadium. They lost collision after collision, conceded four tries and looked a shadow of the team they had been before Christmas.

Schmidt looked shell-shocked as he talked about his players being "a bit broken" by the experience.

Every time they've looked like they've recovered their belief, there's been another set-back to bring them down.

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Over the course of the Six Nations, the coach focused on offering opportunities to fringe players while keeping faint title hopes alive with uninspiring wins over Italy and Scotland before things appeared to click against France.

Six days later, they gave perhaps their worst performance of all away to Wales.

Schmidt spent the build-up second-guessing Warren Gatland over the roof and after the game complained about the team appearing in the media before it was named.

Even as he nears the exit, he continues to waste energy on things beyond his control.

The bigger picture

His inability to see the bigger picture played right into Welsh hands. Like England, they struck early and then patiently waited for their visitors to make mistakes. Ireland obliged, Johnny Sexton's game collapsed, Conor Murray couldn't find his form and the home side kicked their way to a Grand Slam.

It's been the story of the calendar year.

The players rehabilitated their confidence at provincial level, but then Munster and Leinster were out-muscled and outplayed by a Saracens team packed with England players.

In the warm-ups, Ireland tried to take a visit to Twickenham on the fly and ended up with a record defeat.

They steadily recovered their form against Wales, beat Scotland brilliantly in their first World Cup game and then fell apart against Japan a week ago.

Thursday's win over Russia keeps them in control of their pool destiny, but it looks like they're playing for time before a likely quarter-final exit.

Russia, it must be remembered, came in as the lowest-ranked team and lost to Jersey Reds and Connacht in the build-up.

Ireland remain in the tournament and as long as they're here they have a chance at making history.

Their defence has been strong, shipping just 22 points and one try in three games, while their scrum remains a weapon and there are still some individuals like Sexton, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock and Keith Earls who are playing well.

A quarter-final is a one-off game, even against one of the two best teams in the tournament, but on form an Ireland win would be a major shock.

They've gone from expecting consistently high performance levels to hoping for a surprise.

So, what's behind their decline?

Between November 2017 and December 2018, they beat all of their Six Nations rivals and the four Rugby Championship teams, losing just once to Australia in Brisbane when Schmidt decided to give Joey Carbery top-line experience.

Since their All Blacks win, they've lost to England twice, Wales and Japan. They've struggled against Italy and Russia, while beating Scotland and Wales well twice and hammering France.

So, what's been the difference?

Compounding errors

"I don't really know," Rory Best said yesterday when asked.

"If we knew that you'd like to think it wouldn't happen. There have been times when we have allowed mistake upon mistake. I think after the England game we said, 'Right, enough's enough'.

"We thought after the England game in the Six Nations that that would be it, but we allowed it to kind of drift into the rest of that Championship.

"I think when we came in for the start of pre-season we thought it would be right and that England (warm-up) game was a real eye-opener for us.

"And then, against Japan, we just allowed that to happen again. You can't do anything about that result now."

The skipper is insisting that they can recover once again and, in fairness, they've had to get used to bouncing back.

"The blip for Ireland over the last number of years has happened in quarter-finals and you don't get another go at that," he said. "We are still fortunate in the position we left ourselves in after the Scotland game and getting the bonus point against Japan, that even post-Japan it was 100 per cent in our hands.

"It wasn't the way we wanted to qualify but we've kind of breezed through groups before, certainly in the two previous World Cups I've been involved in, and ultimately it matters nothing in the quarter-finals.

"So we've got to be better at rectifying mistakes.

"The key one for me was against Scotland when they kicked downfield and Jacob (Stockdale) misfielded and the ball went into touch in our 22.

"You could see Scotland getting buoyed by it and what, maybe 30-60 seconds later we had a scrum five under their posts which we ultimately scored off. If you want an example of when we are at our best and when we win the next moment in a game, I think that was a real prime example of it."

A loss of belief

Dealing with errors in-game is a challenge, especially when belief levels look so low.

In a rare interview with Schmidt back in 2014, the coach told this newspaper that he wanted the Irish players to embrace favouritism.

Having built their performances to a level where they went into a World Cup as the world's No.1 team, his players look less able than ever.

Hansen believes they found the crown too heavy.

"I said it at the time when we played Ireland that whoever won that game was going to be viewed as the No.1 team in the world and everyone is going to chase them," the All Black coach said earlier this year.

"For us, that's something we've been used to. We've been ranked the No.1 team for 112 months now, but people have seen Ireland as the top dog after they beat us, and that put a massive amount of expectation on the players and coaches.

Hunters become hunted

"Instead of being the hunters, they are the hunted and it's different. It's different when you're sitting at the top of the tree. It's a different experience. Not many teams cope with it."

As the hunted, Ireland became one of the most analysed teams in the game.

Teams have learnt not to concede penalties, challenging Ireland to beat them with their attacking game. If Schmidt's side can't launch off set-pieces, they are not able to break teams down.

And, after looking in peak physical condition in 2018, they now look under-powered.

Dominant collisions have become the language of rugby and other teams have been successful in knocking seasoned Irish ball-carriers and tacklers off the ball.

Injuries haven't helped. Sexton has been struggling, Carbery has had a tough year and Robbie Henshaw has had his fair share of problems.

Ireland's back-row is perhaps their biggest problem.

Dan Leavy's awful knee injury took him out of the equation, while Sean O'Brien's decline and subsequent injury has robbed Schmidt of a leader.

Peter O'Mahony no longer seems able to generate momentum, Josh van der Flier will tackle all day but struggles to make a mark against the bigger teams and CJ Stander is increasingly one-paced.

Leavy is a massive loss and Jack Conan's injury could not have come at a worse time.

Why are Ireland losing collisions? Leo Cullen blamed genetics after his side's loss to Saracens and Best returned to that theme.

"Genetically, as a country, we don't have that many freaks," he said. "We have a lot of very talented players but ultimately whenever we're not quite right I think there's no point in us talking about our strength as a collective and doing our basics well.

"We have a lot of individual talent but we also know our strength is our collective and when that doesn't function you're going to be susceptible."

Right now, they look like a vulnerable team.

Perhaps they can pick things up against Samoa and build towards that one-off performance to defeat one of the big guns, but they've gone from contenders for the trophy itself to talking about taking a scalp and getting to a semi-final.

And even that looks like a stretch at this stage.

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