Irish decline: The numbers tell the story
‘Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.’ – Frederick Wilcox
As the almighty French cheers died out around an empty Aviva Stadium, Fabien Galthie and his charges boarded their flight back to Paris with, yet another significant milestone checked off the list.
This French side are a paradox in a modern game where pragmaticism is the order of the day.
Not to say that they are not capable of adjusting to their opposition, as was evidenced in their victory in what turned out to be an arm wrestle against a rather wayward Irish side.
The French embodied everything Ireland are not at this present moment, young, carefree and driven towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup. If that sounds harsh to Irish fans please know that it is not just the eye test that Ireland are failing but also the statistical one too.
Two years on from Ireland’s unceremonious dumping out of yet another quarter-final this time at the hands of an All-Blacks side who had beaten twelve months previously, Irish Rugby is drifting through a malaise of post-World Cup disappointment. What makes this different than other World Cup cycles has been the lack of any bounce back in performance levels with a generally stale feeling around the side. A global pandemic has not helped Andy Farrell and his coaching staff but neither has an apparent lack of long-term vision.
The issues that characterized the significant fall off between 2017/18 and 2018/19 side are no closer to being resolved. Ireland remain unsure of their identity which has led to an unimaginative return to a search for contact before kicking the ball away.
Across the first two rounds of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Ireland lead the Six Nations in meters carried with 1910, carries – 322 and rank second in kicking meters – 2159. However, despite all of their industrious endeavour they rank last in both tries scored – two and off-loads completed– six. In stark comparison table toppers France have carried the ball just 191 times for a grand total 1273 meters with twenty-one offloads completed and nine tries scored.
For all of the talk coming out of the camp about a feeling of being invigorated and not being far off, the performances and results tell a different story.
Pinpointing an exact reason for where Ireland currently find themselves would not be reasonable. Ireland’s issues are more of a collective puzzle that starts with David Nucifora’s tight lipped assessment of what was a disastrous return at the 2019 World Cup. Outside of landing the blame at Joe Schmidt’s feet, Nucifora and the IRFU have not given a detailed summation of their role in the downfall.
From an outside perspective the IRFU’s policy of keeping players within Ireland has come back to haunt them. Whilst the system has kept the provinces in a relatively strong position both at Pro14 and European level it has caused a backlog of talented young players who the national set-up does not see as being ready for test rugby.
Secondly the appointment of Andy Farrell and a familiar coaching set-up has been expected to make lightning strike twice with an aging group of players who are past their prime. Farrell’s reputation as world class defensive operator and familiarity with Schmidt’s system landed him his first head coaching role and growing pains in the role were to be expected.
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However, his conservative approach towards integrating youth that will be crucial in 2023 has been disappointing to say the least. As previously mentioned, a global pandemic has not helped this integration but nor is it the exclusive reason for not backing players who have been deemed good enough to be around the squad.
Instead, Farrell has persisted with a halfback combination of Murray and Sexton which at the beginning of the tournament if you squinted hard enough made sense as the IRFU like every other union has taken a significant financial hit over the past twelve months. The issue of these players being unable to remain fit has led to players who do not appear likely to be key contributors going forward filling in. Singling out players has become an uncomfortable practice due to many feeling the need to either personally attack or come with an over-the-top defence of said player.
With this being said the reluctance to bring in players such as Gavin Coombes and the reinvigorated Jack Carty combined with the perplexing decision not to give the electric Craig Casey a run against France sums up the fear of failure with which this Irish set-up is operating.
The great NFL coach Bill Parcells had a principle that players he considered to be progress stoppers would not be in his set-up. Usually this applied to senior players who were at one-point stars but were now commanding a significant salary that far outweighed their contribution.
There can be no doubting what players such as Murray, Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls have achieved in a green jersey, but this should not take away from the need to reinvigorate a set-up that is beyond its best.
Irish Rugby’s renowned pragmatism is key here, should they be they set on continuing with Farrell as the man to lead Ireland at the 2023 World Cup they will need to help him from a contractual standpoint. Senior players many of whom are listed above look set to receive one-to-two-year contracts.
With the continual importance being put on the financial return from this year’s Six Nations it would seem contradictory to be focusing on signing players who will not be at the 2023 tournament.
Instead focusing on signing future contributors would allow a platform for the transition of younger players coming through to be accelerated. Justifying why a player who has given a lot to Irish Rugby should not be offered a new contract is difficult but with a number of these players will still command a decent salary abroad.
The second option would be the IRFU moving on from Farrell two years out from the World Cup in what would be an unprecedented move for a union renowned for its stability.
This, however, is not as crazy as it sounds.
Rassie Erasmus took over the Springboks at their lowest point since their return from the international wilderness and took them to a World Cup victory.
Admittedly Erasmus had a significantly wider player pool from which to pick from, once again adding weight behind the argument of allowing Irish players to play in foreign leagues.
Should they look to move on from Farrell finding a suitable candidate could be tricky but certainly not impossible.
Off the top of the head someone like former Springbok coach Jake White who is a serial winner would certainly be able to do a job. Looking closer to home would a return of Pat Lam be, or an elevation of the Leinster coaching ticket be beyond the realms of possibility? Ronan O’Gara who is doing a sterling job at La Rochelle is perhaps an unlikely option at this moment in time as you feel his return to Ireland would likely be at provincial level first or under better circumstances but again, he should be ruled out.
Whilst both situations present their challenges the argument that Irish Rugby is at its lowest since 2012 is backed up by the statistics.
In each year post the World Cup Ireland has seen a bump in performance. Take for example the 2015 World Cup, in that season Ireland had a record of 60 percent with an average score of 26 – 18. In the following three seasons this rose significantly to 75 percent in 2016/17, 81.8 percent in 2017/18 and finally 77.8 percent in 2018/19 before dropping to 66.6 percent in 2019 starting with the significant loss at home to England.
Thus far Farrell and his charges have achieved a win rate of 60 percent in his first year with an average score of 27 – 18 before drifting further back with a rate of 50 percent thus far this season and an average score of 18 – 16 with an average of 1.6 tries score and 1.6 tries conceded.
With this data it would appear that little has change across Farrell’s first two seasons in charge thus the calls for change are thoroughly justified.