Ireland are gearing up for a major rebuilding job after their World Cup campaign ended with a chastening 46-14 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks. It marked a dismal end to a challenging year for the team, and it also represented the end of an era for Ireland. Coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best retired after defeat, which brought down the curtain on a period that promised so much but ended in disappointment.
To be fair, the odds were always stacked against the Irish. The All Blacks were always the clear favourites to win the World Cup for the third time in a row, and they are now odds-on to lift the trophy, according to a 5Dimes review. Yet the manner of Ireland’s defeat left many fans deflated. It was yet another poor performance from a very good team that had previously shown signs of greatness.
Perhaps there was a lack of belief among the squad. The pressure of reaching a first-ever semi-final weighed heavily on their shoulders, and their confidence never really recovered from that shock pool stage defeat against Japan. They ended up finishing second to the Brave Blossoms and went into a monumentally difficult quarter-final clash with New Zealand as a result. They went into it without much hope of success, and they delivered another error-strewn showing in the face of impeccable rugby from the defending champions.
The All Blacks’ defence put Ireland under tremendous pressure, but 17 turnovers is unacceptable from a team of their quality. Missed penalties from Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery suggested nerves were getting the better of them, and seeing those kicks sail wide did little to boost the morale among teammates.
Now we head into another four-year cycle, and incoming coach Andy Farrell is tasked with overhauling an ageing squad and building towards another shot at glory in 2023. Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton will have gone by then, and Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony may have joined them.
Farrell’s first job will be to choose a new captain. James Ryan is just 23 years of age, but he has already displayed strong leadership qualities to match his technical prowess and physical power. He was among the only Irish players to put himself forward for TV interviews after the defeat against the All Blacks, and he displayed a level of maturity beyond his years, so he could be the man for the job.
The first big challenge on the horizon is the 2020 Six Nations. The tournament brought such joy to Irish fans in 2018, but this year they suffered chastening defeats to England and Wales, and that set the tone for a difficult year and a Worlds Cup campaign that ended in serious disappointment.
Farrell is tainted by the defeats against Japan and New Zealand, bit he could win over the fans by leading Ireland to glory next year. The trouble is that he faces a tough balancing act as he bids for short-term glory while also making sweeping changes and bedding in young players that will hopefully take the world by storm in four years’ time.
Ultimately he should consider changing the philosophy. Ireland played attractive rugby in 2018, and the play became narrower this year. If Farrell encourages a more expansive game, using the outside channels better, and relies less on the attritional approach, then Ireland could bounce back and finally reach a World Cup semi-final.
New Zealand were slicker and quicker in possession than Ireland, and a lot more accurate. It could be time to move away from the effective attritional rugby, which is starting to look one-dimensional. The post-mortems will continue for months, but Farrell now has the opportunity to identify new players that can play a more expressive game.
So the question is should Farrell make Ryan the new captain?
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