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Ireland’s Agony – The Big Questions

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Philip Doyle, by far Ireland’s most successful head coach, has given his verdict on the team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup. It is damning.

But he doesn’t aim his arrows at the targets many might have imagined, those at the top of the tree. He claims that funding was not the principal issue. More resources were poured into the programme after he left his post in 2015.

The Sevens-Fifteens Split

He sees the need for a strict division between the Fifteens and the Sevens programmes. He draws a stark contrast in the deciding match in Parma between the experience of the Scottish back-line (241 caps) and the Irish (104 caps).

That is a highly debatable claim. It is true that the Scottish backs had a leading role in the result, Rhona Lloyd and Chloe Rollie scoring two of their tries (the third to Lana Skeldon); Ireland’s came from two prop forwards, Linda Djougang and Lindsey Peat.

But – and it is a big but – how often have the Scottish backs played a major role in try-scoring in recent years? For all their renown their finishing ability has been consistently poor. A major reason for their large number of caps has been precisely the lack of competition for places in the back-line. You could claim the same for the pack. Bryan Easson has sought far and wide for new faces who could add potency to the brew.

Totting up caps proves very little. It is hard to think of a more potent choice of backs than the one Adam Griggs assembled.

How other nations see it

Few other tier-1 nations are following the line he advocates. New Zealand and France for example allow players to switch constantly between the two. This is partly due to a fear that a strict division would lead to a weakening of one or the other. Canada takes a different view, only rarely bringing a star 7s player back into the 15s fold. Most countries with limited playing strength cannot afford to keep the two squads permanently separate; the USA is a prime example.

As player-numbers increase and standards rise, we may well see a more permanent division of forces, but not yet.

When Stacey Flood and Amee-Leigh Murphy-Crowe were introduced to the Six Nations programme this year, many observers saw that as a big plus. Ireland regained the third place that they like to feel is their correct minimum target. On the other hand the pair’s performances in the recent qualifiers did show up shortcomings that would have been ironed out with more experience. Murphy-Crowe’s relieving kick out of defence that led to an Italian try for Beatrice Rigoni is a case in point.

If the two had not been introduced to the Fifteens squad, were there alternatives around of equal or better standard? It’s doubtful.

Selection Problems

Doyle takes issue with Griggs’ constant changing of personnel. That is a fair charge. Once we disregard problems of availability, should he not have decided far earlier on his best options, especially in the key positions?

But Griggs isn’t the only head coach to face this charge. In recent times the French management have been accused of playing pot-luck in their selections, and even Simon Middleton has huge decisions to make about his best Fifteen. Who will be playing in the centre against the Black Ferns?

He will say that he has complete faith in all the 23 he selects for a given match, but sooner or later the players need to know just where they stand.

The English Model

Doyle points to the Allianz Premier 15s as a guide-line to Ireland’s future. There, he says, the elite club structure is properly supported by the RFU, on and off the field. The AIL, Ireland’s elite league already under way, must receive the same sort of attention. That surely would be one of the most important building-blocks in a new structure.

The Agony

The way the 2021 (2022) World Cup was organised was bound to lead to dramatic and painful results in Europe. As a continent it contains far more tier-1 nations than any other. World Rugby wanted to spread its net wider, to give less favoured nations the chance to compete in the final stages. That meant that a highly ranked member of the Six Nations was bound to bite the dust at an early stage.

It was Ireland’s misfortune to be the fall-guy. The only possible benefit would be a shake-up of the national system. To the outsider it may have appeared that Ireland’s structure was far more successful than the Welsh, but the result in Parma has only increased the volume of protest coming from ex-players and the Irish media.

The loss to Scotland can be seen as an unacceptable re-run of the poor showing at the last World Cup on home territory. The IRFU has announced it will undertake a root-and-branch review. Perhaps it should have come sooner.

Resignations may well be in prospect, but they would have a delaying effect on change.