Ireland’s lack of mental focus at the root of Wallaby routing

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Ireland’s lack of mental focus at the root of Wallaby routing
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Ireland’s lack of mental focus at the root of Wallaby routing

It’s likely that Ewen McKenzie woke this morning with a grin of satisfaction on his face.

His Wallabies team beat Ireland in every area of last night’s November Test match in Dublin, none more so than in the aggression stakes. Even the oft-criticised Australian scrum came out on top against a weak Ireland pack.

Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt and his squad will have woken with regret at their failure to turn up for a high profile international game. One Australian newspaper said this encounter will go down as “one of the great embarrassments for Ireland”.

While that is sensationalist, the players will definitely feel a degree of embarrassment. The Wallabies deserve great credit for their performance, absolutely, but this was not a case of being beaten by a better team. Ireland’s players simply didn’t turn up.

Whatever about tactics, starter plays and scrummaging techniques, rugby is a very simple game at the end of the day. It involves physical contest after physical contest and if players aren’t aggressive in those collisions, they will lose more often than not. There was a total lack of aggression in Ireland’s performance, which allowed Australia to play so well.

Ireland got over the gain-line in 78.43% of their contact situations in attack, while the Wallabies managed to do so 87.32% of the time. The figures (courtesy of the excellent Ruckin Good Stats) highlight what was obvious watching the game live; Ireland’s defence allowed McKenzie’s men to make yards nearly every time they carried the ball.

Ireland lost the collisions last night. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

A lack of aggression and mental focus often becomes apparent in a team’s lack of line speed, a failure to get off the defensive line and be proactive in defence. Think of any sports game you’ve been involved in where you weren’t up for it; it’s hard to force yourself into an aggressive action.

There are elements of Ireland’s defensive system that ask the players to sit off in defence, but that just doesn’t suit this Irish team. Players like Sean O’Brien, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best are suited to getting off the line with more speed. Sometimes all it takes is one big tackle to get the team going. Not a single moment like that sticks in the memory from last night.

Ronan O’Gara’s post-match analysis on RTE was the most accurate we heard. The former Ireland out-half spoke about Ireland having lost the “battle of the body language” and it’s impossible to disagree with. There was no urgency for Ireland, no energy. There was no back slapping after good plays, in stark contrast to the Australians.

The lack of focus was obvious from the first few minutes of the game, now that we can look back with the unfair benefit of hindsight. Sexton missed his first penalty kick to touch, Devin Toner dropped his first catch at the lineout and Sean O’Brien knocked on with his first carry of the game. Those are the trio’s major skills and to see them all failing at their core duties so early on should have warned us of what was to come.

It’s impossible to know the reasons Ireland’s mental approach was lacking without having been in camp this week, and it is not our intention to start speculating here. Simply put, in a game between two teams of similar ability, the one who is more motivated and focused is likely to win. That was never more obvious than last night.

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