World Cup seeding is under threat
Four months ago it was difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say for Ireland or Joe Schmidt, publicly at least. Fresh from that historic win over New Zealand at Soldier Field – their first in 111 years – Ireland were a team brimming with self-belief and many pundits’ tip for the Six Nations title, having beaten all three southern hemisphere teams in a calendar year for the first time.
Fast forward four months and the outlook is not so rosy. Defeat by England could materially affect Ireland’s hopes at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, almost certainly leaving them in the bottom half of the table; their worst finish under Schmidt.
If Ireland lose to England, and Wales beat France in Paris, they could lose their place among the top seeds for the World Cup draw in May.
Lapses in defence
Much has been made of Ireland’s greater line speed under Andy Farrell, but there have been worrying lapses in their concentration in this tournament. Three tries conceded in the first half at Murrayfield, three more at the Millennium Stadium.
In total, in Farrell’s 11 matches as defence coach, Ireland have conceded 27, or one every every 32½ minutes. Partly that is down to the opposition they have faced – South Africa (three times) New Zealand (twice), Australia (once) – partly a conscious effort to play a more open, expansive game.
But it has not escaped notice in Ireland that when Les Kiss was working with Schmidt the team conceded 39 tries in 27 matches, or one every 55 minutes.
Lack of adventure
Ireland have some wonderful, attacking players and can open the floodgates when the mood grabs them. They scored five tries against the All Blacks in Chicago. But they are an inconsistent attacking force.
There was much gnashing of teeth when they again failed to convert from within their opponents’ 22 metres in Cardiff last week. An over-reliance on Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton has been cited in some quarters. Others feel they are so obsessed by not conceding penalties that they lack ferocity at the breakdown.
Schmidt’s team have been the best behaved in this Championship, having conceded just 25 in four matches (their penalty count across the autumn series – 11 – was even more impressive). But even with the count so heavily in their favour in Cardiff last week (10-4), they were unable to break through.
Micro-management wearing thin
That point about being overly cautious feeds into another allegation against Schmidt; that he is overly prescriptive; a micro-manager. There has been talk of the players – jokingly – referring to him as ‘Schmidtler’ behind his back.
His video review sessions are legendary. No one is suggesting the New Zealander does not have the confidence of his players, or that he is not a tactical genius. He is. But he is also, demonstrably, not a huge amount of fun.
He does not give many interviews, although he is said to read everything. He has been known to ban journalists from huddles. The contrast with Eddie Jones perhaps does not help him here.
Failing to build on the All Blacks victory
When England beat New Zealand at Twickenham in 2012 it was hailed as proof of England’s progress under Stuart Lancaster. In fact, that win turned out to be the high point of his tenure.
Schmidt will be anxious to move on from Soldier Field. Win on Saturday and Ireland can hold their heads high. Lose – particularly a heavy loss – and Schmidt is likely to face tough questions.
When Ireland last lost three matches in the Six Nations, it spelt the end for Declan Kidney in 2013. Schmidt is in no danger of losing his job. He is contracted to the 2019 World Cup and retains the faith of the players and the IRFU. But his win percentage pre-and-post-World Cup (77 per cent v 47 per cent) might start to attract unwelcome attention.