Autumn Rugby Internationals Review – Can Ireland cope with growing weight of expectation?

The Ireland captain is back to his best form.

The Ireland captain is back to his best form.

One year on once since the appointment of Joe Schmidt as international team coach Irish rugby is certainly in as good a place it has been since the historic Grand Slam winning year of 2009. The current Six Nations champions had an unbeaten Autumn International series which included victories over South Africa and Australia and their comprehensive ‘A’ team victory over Georgia also produced a number of noteworthy performances from some outstanding emerging players such as Dave Foley, Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw. The re-introduction of Simon Zebo; the continual development of Jack McGrath; the eye-catching sparks from Stuart Olding against Georgia, have all helped to prove level of the quality now available to Schmidt.

All in all everything appears well for Joe Schmidt’s men but many Irish rugby pessimists have already warned that similar precedents are not good for Irish rugby performances when expectations are as high as they currently are. But somehow this team, despite the gaping void left by retirement of Brian O’Driscoll, appears to be never as well equipped ahead of a ‘home’ World Cup year and just under two months before the start of the defence of their Six Nations title.

Irish prospects for the Six Nations and World Cup 2015

Ireland open the defence of their title with a trip to Rome and although facing Italy in the opening round is probably the worst time to play them Joe Schmidt’s men are bound to also have the following week’s game against France firmly in their focus. Assuming that they secure two opening round victories then they will have two week’s rest before taking on England on March 1st.

Stuart Lancaster’s men will have played Wales in Cardiff in their opening round fixture which will also be dubbed a World Cup ‘rehearsal’ for their eagerly awaited Twickenham clash later in the year on September 26th. The outcome of the Wales and England clash could have a big bearing on Ireland’s Six Nations prospects because if England do prevail then their clash in Dublin might be a championship decider with still two rounds remaining.

Ireland’s visit to Cardiff on March 14th and the following week to Murrayfield will therefore not have the same significance for Irish fans unless their team is still in contention for the championship. But all the early indications are that many Irish fans are already preparing for a big weekend in Edinburgh on March 21st.

Ireland’s style of offensive play

Since the victory over South Africa, much debate has focused on Ireland’s style of offensive play. Expansive patterns and offloads have now given way to control in the tighter channels and smart targeted kicking. Schmidt, one of the great attacking innovators at club level, has now shown a more pragmatic side.

After the structured nature of the Six Nations championship victory, it was anticipated that Ireland would adopt a more expansive approach and, while this has yet to materialise, there can be no complaints about Ireland’s recent performaces. A broader repertoire, including a more creative running game, will be an essential element of any meaningful challenge at the World Cup and this approach is likely to be phased into the game plan over the course of the Six Nations.

But much comfort can also be taken from the fact that Ireland are now a highly organised, competent, clinical, and smart operation, both on and off the field. With Simon Easterby having come through his first Test series with the squad, any lack of familiarity with his new players and environment will have been dispelled, as the entire group continues to grow in confidence, depth and competition for places.

So roll on February 7th because Ireland’s development in the last twelve months has meant that they are now capable to taking on some of the best nations in the game. And unlike many previous campaigns there is serious strength in depth in the playing squad as well as competition for places in the team. Joe Schmidt’s coaching ability has also propelled his own reputation in the game but he must now show he also has the ability to manage the inevitable weight of expectation that is sure to weigh heavy on his and his team’s shoulders. Somehow I believe Ireland could be set for a year to match or even exceed an unforgettable Grand Slam year of 2009 that might even see them equalling that feat as well as contesting a World Cup semi-final or even final perhaps.

Expensive World Cup tournament for Irish supporters

Although Ireland’s four games will be shared between London and Cardiff, the proximity of the venues will be somewhat counteracted by the high cost of match tickets which on paper could average up £1,000 for supporters to attend all four Pool games before the knock-out stages. Not surprisingly there has therefore been widespread condemnation about the high cost of tickets and it would appear that the success of London 2012 has influenced the organisers in charging up to four times more than the average cost of an average international match ticket.

Ireland’s 2015 Six Nations Fixtures

Saturday February 7th
Round 1 – Italy – Stadio Olimpico, Rome 2.30pm

Saturday February 14th
Round 2 – France – Aviva Stadium, 5.00pm

Sunday March 1st
Round 3 – England – Aviva Stadium, 3.00pm

Saturday March 14th
Round 4 – Wales – Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, 2.30pm

Saturday March 21st
Round 5 – Scotland – Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 2.30pm

Ireland’s Pool D – 2015 World Cup Fixtures

Saturday September 19th – Round 1
Millennium Stadium – Canada – 2.30pm

Sunday September 27th – Round 2
Wembley Stadium – Romania – 5.00pm

Sunday October 4th – Round 3
Olympic Stadium – Italy – 5.00pm

Sunday October 11th – Round 4
Millennium Stadium – France – 5.00pm