Monday 24 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Best intentions stray off target

Hooker blames himself for line-out meltdown

Ireland flanker David Wallace skips by the challenge of Scotland's Max Evans during Saturday's Croke Park clash
Ireland flanker David Wallace skips by the challenge of Scotland's Max Evans during Saturday's Croke Park clash
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When they come to dismantle Rory Best's calamitous farewell to Croke Park, they needn't bother sending out a posse to track him down.

Because he's right here in front of us all this morning, sitting on this page, opening the blinds on a whole store-room of regret.

Imagine. When so much around is a shabby carnival of denial -- banks, church, state -- Best stepped before us on Saturday evening, all but volunteering for penance. Didn't anyone tell him about due process?

Ireland's line-out slipped into virtual meltdown on Saturday and, when a line-out fails, the thrower gets it in the eye.

Best certainly over-cooked a few deliveries and a couple of others were penalised by the pedantic Jonathan Kaplan for being 'crooked'. In total, Ireland spilled seven darts off the board. What had been their strongest weapon became a gaping gash in the hull.

Now a line-out needs many different segments to work and Scotland defended the air so well, the Irish locks sometimes looked like they were jumping out of fields thick with meadowsweet and parsley. But Best just wasn't buying into the search for a comforting alibi.

"Sometimes you just have to hold your hand up and say it was a poor day," sighed the Ulster hooker refreshingly. "You know I didn't throw particularly well. It's just one of those things.

"You take all the plaudits, now you have to take all the criticism too. That's just team sport. If you can't win your line-out, especially down, deep towards their line, you know you're going to struggle. So, that's just something I'm going to have to take on the chin and live with.


"I don't want to take anything away from Scotland. They're a fantastic team. They played particularly well today and put a lot of pressure on us. But, at the same time, we pride ourselves on our line-out and it fell well short of the standards that we set."

Asked if he was maybe "stunned" by the scale of the malfunction, he responded: "I'm not sure if 'stunned' is the right word. But, at this level, teams are going to do their homework. And they put a lot of pressure on us. Whenever one or two start to go, it's very hard -- confidence-wise -- to get it back up.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the can will fall with me. That's just something that I'll have to deal with and get back home on Monday and start practising again and show with Ulster that it was a one-off, a blip. These things happen."

It was a candid and forthright admission from a man who, colleagues insisted, could not be blamed in isolation. After all, Ireland's scrum creaked palpably too and the often startling adventure of the backline reaped just a brace of tries, both dubiously executed.

Yet, the line-out was the bell that rang loudest. And Stephen Ferris took a drop-light to the mechanics.

"It's difficult," he sighed. "Obviously, there were one or two throws that weren't straight. I got a call wrong, Jamie (Heaslip) got a call wrong. You know, just a lapse of concentration maybe. And you know maybe a couple of the calls were wrong as well.

"The finger just can't be pointed at Rory or Paul (O'Connell) because he calls the line-outs. It's one to eight and we all need to take responsibility. Our line-out's been functioning so well in the last few games, so for us not to perform there today is a massive disappointment."

Scotland were, in a sense, the bullet that nobody saw coming. They hadn't won a Six Nations game against Ireland in nine years and they've been much of the past decade scuffling with Italy for avoidance of the Wooden Spoon. That's pretty much how we saw them this time too. A backing-track to our glory march.

As Ferris put it: "There's been a lot of media hype coming up to this game. You can't help but lift a paper and have a read of it in the morning and maybe sometimes you just need to distance yourself from that a small bit. For me, the way this week's gone, there's been so much hype about the game, you know last ever game at Croke Park.

"You're kind of running out there, you want to perform. And, sometimes, maybe you're trying too hard. Which isn't the best thing to do. And maybe, on a personal note, I was doing that today. It might have been the same for a few other people. But that's experience for you. It's in the bank now. Looking ahead, I'll learn from this Six Nations."

No doubt he will, yet the implications of Saturday's loss now reach deeper than the basic spurning of silverware. The extraordinarily cruel manner of Jonny Sexton's removal from the game may have left a deposit of untold damage with the young Leinster fly-half, whose place-kicking in this championship has undermined an accomplished all-round game.

Ronan O'Gara, unquestionably, brought a greater game-control when introduced. But Rog will be closing in on 35 by the next World Cup. There aren't many pivots of that vintage still wearing international jerseys.

Declan Kidney needs Sexton to succeed. Asked if Ireland could regard three out of five as a successful Six Nations, Ferris was unequivocal. "Obviously not because we haven't won anything," he said flatly.

"I think this is a team that can win trophies, should win trophies. We didn't take our eye off the money. We wanted to win this Triple Crown, but it just didn't work for us today. There was no lack of effort, maybe just a lapse in concentration.

"You know, 50/50 balls that we should maybe have held on to. In Test rugby, it comes down to very small margins. But we've only lost two games, I think, out of our last 15. We're kind of a team that's not used to losing at the minute. So when you do you lose, it does really get you down. We just weren't at the races today! We were nowhere near where we can play."

Sobering to think that Sexton's off-load for Brian O'Driscoll's try was clearly forward and that Tommy Bowe's touchdown looked suspiciously like a spill. For, as Andy Robinson averred afterwards, Ireland had "looked tremendous" in the early flurries.

If anything, the captain's try looked just the first pebble in a likely avalanche. But Ireland were playing a high-risk game that seemed purposefully designed to avoid set-pieces. And that's akin to building a boat designed to avoid water.

Just 28 minutes in, three of Best's throws had already ended up in Scottish hands and Ireland, for all their adventure, trailed 7-8. A peculiar edginess was being written into the nervous system of the game.

For the hooker, there was no escaping the gasps of disbelief beginning to splash around the stadium. Throws missed their target, passes went to ground. The dials slipped into red.

"I don't think we particularly went into our shells," he reflected. "I think we certainly kept trying things. Unfortunately, it's just one of those days when the ball didn't go to hand. But you make your own luck and Scotland deserved the bounce of the ball today. They beat us off the park.

"If you go into the changing-room, there's 22 or 23 bitterly disappointed men in there. We're very very competitive. We really pride ourselves on winning things and performing when it counts. Unfortunately, today we didn't perform when it counted."

Had the weight of defending a Grand Slam maybe tugged too fiercely at the rib-cage?

"I don't think it's particularly been a burden," said Best. "We are a very competitive bunch. We pride ourselves on the big performances. If you look at Munster and Leinster in the European Cup games. Ulster -- this year -- have performed well in the big cup games that we've had to win.

"They're the sort of games as a professional athlete that you want to play in, the big games where there's a lot at stake. While trying to back up a Grand Slam was always going to be difficult, I don't think it's something that got to us.

"But Scotland, remember, were just a couple of minutes away from beating Wales and a drop-goal or penalty away from beating England. So, they could have been going for their own Triple Crown here. It's a very tight competition, one of the best in the world.

"But the Triple Crown was there for us and we really wanted to win it. And for whatever reason, whether it was mentally or what, we just weren't at the races."

Hardly a future in banking for the Irish hooker.

Irish Independent

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