It was as surprising as shocking, but Ireland’s less-than-stellar Six Nations tournament was something that quite possibly needed to happen. Whisper it quietly, but there may have been an air of overconfidence going into the final tournament before this year’s World Cup. Had Ireland triumphed in Cardiff and somehow clinched the title, it would have been the perfect tonic to a poor start to the year. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and now, it’s time to move on. But can they?
The Favorites Tag
As a nation, we seem to play our best when considered the underdog. There’s something about overcoming diversity to beat the odds that gets us all riled up. So, could it be that the favorites tag bestowed upon our boys in green could have been too much to bear?
Many fans’ Six Nations predictions had Ireland down as the favorites for another Grand Slam, but a limp defeat to England put paid to those notions. Even still, we all assumed that this was a blip and that the team would come good later. But strangely, we never got out of the blocks.
Stuttering wins against both Italy and Scotland tempered by that great win against the French, but the truth is that the entire team never got out of second gear when considered the favorites. However, as poorly as we played against the Italians, the hammering by Wales destroyed the confidence of the team. Consolation tries don’t often mean much, but that last score against Wales is quite possibly the most important try they scored in the entire tournament.
What happens next?
Caption: What does Schmidt do next?
It’s the big question that faces Joe Schmidt in the run-up to the World Cup. Against Wales, Ireland lacked energy and intensity and looked anything but a team with something to play. Sports is a world of “what ifs,” but had they beaten the Welsh, they would have at least restored some pride and quite possibly, won the tournament if the England result stayed the same.
The future looks bright for Ireland with the current U20s winning the Six Nations with a game to spare before going on to win the Grand Slam against Wales. An optimist might feel that one or two players could make the step up, but it seems highly unlikely that any will feature against Italy, England and Wales in the World Cup warm-up matches. After the debacle that was the last few weeks, we doubt that Schmidt will want to take too many chances in his last hurrah with Ireland.
It looks more likely that Ireland’s favorite Kiwi will work with what he has at his disposal and trim down the 36 players he used in the Six Nations as he finalizes his 31-man squad. It’s going to be a tough job though, as confidence will be at an all-time low, although a relatively successful end of the season for the Irish provinces would help enormously.
A Blessing in Disguise
It’s Schmidt’s last tournament before retirement, and one would think that this would be great motivation to kick on and play well. But this was his last Six Nations, and it didn’t spur the team on. No, if they are to recover some of their lost mojos, it won’t be to impress the coach, but rather it will be because they are once again the underdogs.
Think about this: The limp display in the Six Nations was a blessing in disguise. Gone now is the complacency that the likes of South Africa and the All Blacks would have punished. Gone too is the burden of the favorites tag that the team never looked like they enjoyed.
Ireland is back as the underdog, and that’s the way it should be. With no great expectations from the public, the shackles will be off. The confidence will be there to take a chance, as there will be nothing to lose. And if our opponents underestimate us, then so be it. It might feel painful to admit it, but if we want to win this World Cup, then the poor Six Nations is precisely the shock to the system the team needed. Say it loud and proud: Ireland for the World Cup!