Autumn Internationals Preview: Ireland and the "favourites" fear
Ok, so the Lions is now nothing but a distant memory, seasons are in full flow, and the 6 Nations is looming large in the background. But before we get there, we’ve got the Autumn Internationals.
Great for blooding new players, phasing out oldies, and *ahem* confirming eligibility, the November Internationals are always entertaining to watch.
There are some cracking games lined up this year and we’re going to be here throughout. In the build-up we’ll previewing each team’s upcoming games.
Aki and the Irish media
Ok, so let’s just get this out of the way early so we don’t have to revisit it.
Bundee Aki is in the Ireland squad. End of. He’s not the first to get in under this rule and he won’t be the last. If you have an issue with this decision then your gripe is with the rule itself and World Rugby, not Aki. The portrayal of the situation and the antics of some sections of the Irish media this week has been horrendous. Neil Franics has long been a despicable (human being) pundit but his quest to remain relevant has certainly picked up in recent times.
The end line is Aki is in the Ireland squad on merit. He calls Ireland his home and he deserves his chance. It’s 2017 and the world is a much smaller place. People can have ties and connections to places other than those of their birth. As McKinley is doing in Italy , Aki is doing in Ireland. The only difference in the two situations is the difference in the coverage and the media reaction, and it’s appalling.
So, congratulations to the both of them on their debuts.
Right, so that aside let’s have a look at the Irish set up.
Ireland’s Autumn Squad
Obviously Zebo’s omission from the squad was the biggest headline from this announcement. His decision to move to France seems to have effectively ended his international career. It’s a shame. Zebo does possess the ability to change the outcome of a game, but, there we have it.
As for the rest of the squad, basically as expected bar maybe two omission. Sean Cronin has certainly done enough in a green shirt to warrant a place on this team, if even as a replacement. He would be a real asset to have and could have started the Fiji game. The other miss has to be Tiernan O’Halloran. He must have been extremely close and can really count himself unfortunate to miss out. Injuries can still play a part and we could realistically expect to see changed to the squad over the next few weeks. On that note, it's good to see Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy called up.
If not named in this squad, the aim here has to be the 6 Nations for these guys. Get in a good strong of performances between now and the new year and get your name back in the discussion.
Ireland v South Africa
It’s tough to take too much away from the SA game. Not that Ireland weren’t impressive, they were efficient and ruthless when needed. The issue is South Africa’s performance. This game needs to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.
This is a Springboks side that is without direction and purpose. Their level of work rate and productivity around the rucks and set pieces was appalling. You simply won’t compete at international level with such a poor output. As we mentioned in our Scottish Preview, this is a SA side that has some real issues.
But, that aside, Ireland should be happy with the performance. They brought a level of quality and professionalism that was so lacking from their counterparts.
The key now is to build.
Irish rugby's biggest issue
So far in these previews we’ve looked at each team's oppenents in progression but we’re going to make a change here (for the record we expect wins over both Figi and the Argies!).
We want to talk about the nature of Irish Rugby and the “favourites” tag.
In Irish sport, it seems the assignment of favourites to any team is a deathwish. They don’t want it and often they don’t live up to it.
Too many times have we watched an Irish side collapse when the pressure mounts, several exits at the quarter final stage of the World Cup being an obvious example.
Now you may think this is harsh but let’s really look at this.
We’ll take last year’s 6 Nations as the example. Ireland fall short against an admittedly good Scottish team and so lose a chance at a Grand Slam. But, the country rejoices with a victory over England.
Not that this isn’t impressive, England are clearly a quality side and a victory is victory, but think about who is in the better position? England have won the tournament and Ireland have won a game that, for the majority of the country, seems to be 90 percent about spite.
Of course it takes a lot to raise your performance for the final game of the tournament and beat the winners but let’s see that performance throughout.
The point is, it has to be done on the bigger stage. There’s a reason we went so long without a Grand Slam. There’s also a reason that a World Cup semi-final still alludes us. It’s time to embrace the tag of favourites and play with confidence.
The All Blacks are the obvious example here. They relish the thought of it. There’s not a man in that squad who doesn’t think that NZ aren’t outright the best team in World Rugby.
The best perform on the biggest stage. Simple as.
And this Ireland team should be confident. They have an excellent coach and have some real, genuine world class players in their squad. The world cup is creeping closer and it’s time to stake a claim.
There is a massive two years of rugby ahead. It’s time for this Irish side to produce on the very highest level.
We’re a good side, let’s embrace it without fear.