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Given how well this team performed last year, they are inevitably going to be judged by the same high standards.
So, when they not only dip below them, but also rekindle the wildly inconsistent form that you don’t necessarily associate with Joe Schmidt’s teams, then questions are entitled to be asked.
The head coach has copped a fair bit of flak from certain quarters for not developing his game-plan enough after sweeping all before them in 2018.
The warning signs had been there throughout this year’s Six Nations, however, and into the thumping warm-up defeat to England before Japan inflicted the worst defeat of Schmidt’s era.
For all of the finger-pointing that has been done at the coaching staff, when it comes down to it, the players are the ones who must shoulder the majority of the blame.
After all, this is their time to shine. Too many Ireland teams have buckled under the pressure of playing at a World Cup and Schmidt’s men are teetering perilously close to doing the same. The good news for them is that their destiny remains firmly in their own hands and, on their day, they are still well capable of beating the All Blacks or the Springboks in a potential quarter-final.
For that to happen, a lot of things will have to work in their favour, yet it all starts with the players fronting up and rediscovering the kind of consistent performances that had seen them climb to the top of the world rankings.
International Rugby Newsletter
Too many of them have retreated into their shells at various stages over the opening three games in Japan. Too often, they have looked to be gripped by fear, which is frustrating given the talent Schmidt has at his disposal.
“Players will always take responsibility because the times that we’ve done the game-plan to the best of our ability, we’ve won I think every time,” Johnny Sexton told us this week.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Rory Best to set the tone. The captain spoke well and didn’t seem to be reading from a preordained message. Inst
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