Vincent Hogan: Cool heads can be key
Published 12/02/2011 | 05:00
Up in the broadcast gantry of Stadio Flaminio, Denis Hickie knew exactly what they would do.
He couldn't foretell the ending but, if a grave was being dug now, they would not go to it with any secrets. Great, bellicose roars bounced off a perfect Roman sky as the ball was tossed to Mirco Bergamasco and Ireland's players gathered under the posts.
Hickie knew what voices would glue the huddle tight and, more pertinently, how rational they would be in tone.
Ireland had two minutes to formulate a rescue or embrace the infamy of defeat.
No team in green had ever lost a Six Nations game to Italy and consternation loomed at home now, the media sharpening blades.
Two minutes to avoid bloodshed.
Hickie found himself watching with monk-like calm. "As soon as that try was scored, anyone who has watched that group of players in recent years knew exactly what was going to happen" he says. "And, if we people on the outside had that kind of confidence, you can imagine how sure and clear-thinking everyone was on the pitch ... ."
He knows them better than most after a decade of manning the same trenches and, in a sense, the past week reminded him how they exist in a kind of parallel world to their public.
On Saturday, Ronan O'Gara dropped the injury-time goal that secured a clammy victory. Nobody was happy. Too many passes spilled, too few glimpses of creative clarity. If anything, the mechanics of rescue were depicted almost as a backward step.
O'Gara will be 34 in March and has slipped behind Jonny Sexton in the international pecking order. His game is an essay in control and slide-rule accuracy. Munster and Ireland will forever be indebted to those qualities, but modern law interpretations have -- supposedly -- taken the game to another place now.
The new way is to keep the ball alive and attack incessantly from the breakdown. In other words, to eschew the habit of kicking for territory and invest your faith instead in the ball carrier.
Trouble is, in Rome, Ireland's ball carriers had a bruising day. Italy were hugely physical and, unable to invent a way around them, Ireland suffered in the collisions.
Hence, the rather puzzling spectacle of a predominantly Leinster backline playing without any semblance of the brio that has, of late, electrified European audiences. In one Heineken Cup week last month, Leinster ran in 11 tries, catapulting them into the quarter-finals and convincing the bookies that they should be considered favourites to win the tournament.
So how come an Irish backline with five of those Leinster players on board could be so lacking in penetration against Italy?
Eddie O'Sullivan believes the answer lies in that collision zone. He suggests that Leinster have been dominating teams physically in Europe, thereby creating a constant supply of front-foot ball for their backs. Ireland, he argues, have not had that luxury. The difference may amount to only fractions of a second but, according to O'Sullivan, that difference is "colossal" in international rugby.
In Dublin yesterday, Alan Gaffney -- the current Ireland and Leinster backs coach -- seemed to concur, recalling a conversation had with a former Wallaby coach about the difference between club rugby and international.
"I was told by none other than Eddie Jones at the time," says Gaffney. "When I thought that Super 14 rugby was the same as international rugby, he assured me that that wasn't the case. And I soon found out that to be correct.
"The (international) game is a bit quicker. You are punished for the errors more. There's no doubt it is definitely a higher standard. It's a different pace, a different tempo, a different quality.
"They (the Irish backs) have been on fire with Leinster, there's no doubt. We know Italy competed very well at the breakdown, slowed a bit of our ball down, but I thought we put some pretty good structures together last weekend too. Obviously, our individual skill level let us down.
"But that was one of those days you'd hope doesn't come back for some time. It's a day that probably haunts us a little bit at the present time, but we'll take responsibility for what happened last weekend. Don't like to do so but, you know, it's just the reality of life.
"We also understand that the guys have a high skill level and we don't suspect it (the rate of error) will happen in that sort of quantity again. Hopefully."
Creatively, Ireland lean heavily on Leinster's backs. Of the 35 starting positions behind the scrum for the four November Internationals and last weekend's game with Italy, 22 have been filled by Leinster regulars. For Ireland's most compelling performance in the autumn, the 18-38 loss to New Zealand, six of the seven starting backs were from the eastern province.
Yet, Munster's O'Gara was the catalyst for a rousing comeback against the Springboks (he created two late tries in a 21-23 loss) and scored exactly half of Ireland's points in the 20-10 victory over Samoa.
Gaffney insists that Ireland plan to attack France tomorrow and, again, five of the seven starting backs will be from Leinster.
It makes sense that they will reference some of the same plays that have made Joe Schmidt's team so easy on the eye, albeit most modern backline moves have a generic quality.
Simon Geoghegan's winning try for Ireland at Twickenham in '94 was, after all, a version of a move O'Sullivan had been using at London Irish to free up a winger who was, routinely, getting double-teamed.
Hickie admits that backline moves come, essentially, from an open market place. "There's nothing particularly secretive about plays," suggests the 62-times capped winger. "So it's all about execution.
"A lot of the wrap-arounds that Leinster use, Ireland have used in recent seasons. So Leinster didn't actually come up with the wrap-around play. That play has been around for 10 years, if not longer.
"The difference between doing it for Leinster and Ireland is, I believe, that international rugby is a greater challenge to the players individually. The Heineken Cup is fantastic and the rugby is very high quality.
"But international games are much more tense and you will consistently come up against better players. People look at the Leinster guys playing for Ireland and just expect them to pick up where they left off in the Heineken Cup. But that's not realistic.
"The coaching is different. In fact, all the components that make up how a team plays are different."
In Paris last weekend, France's error rate against Scotland all but flew off the Richter Scale. They spilled passes and missed tackles like a team that had done its warm-up on a speeding fairground carousel. Yet, they also won. And a winning French team generally escapes scorn.
Ireland, by contrast, were pilloried for the carelessness of Rome. Victory was depicted as an act of larceny and, maybe, part of that came from sympathy for the Italians. It was as if they had stolen from a beggar.
Yet, in a sense, nothing became the team last weekend quite like its reaction to crisis.
Hickie points to the experience of New Zealand at the 2007 World Cup as evidence that even the greatest of teams don't necessarily have that inner composure.
"Look at the All Blacks against France in that quarter-final four years ago," he says. "When they were within drop-goal distance, they just went over and back, no one actually having the wherewithal -- either that or the bottle -- to put their hand up and go for it. They looked like they weren't quite sure what they were doing. They weren't able to execute it, that fantastic team.
"So even the best teams don't necessarily have those traits in them. Digging yourself out of trouble under very extreme pressure is not something every team can do.
"But this Irish team will be happy that, not for the first time, they didn't panic when they went behind at a crucial time. We've seen this in them everywhere from the Triple Crown game at Twickenham (Shane Horgan's last-minute try in '06) to the Grand Slam game in Cardiff (O'Gara's drop-goal in '09), even to some of the terrible World Cup performances in '07.
"That's massive because the people they're playing against will realise that, if it's a two-point game, it's not over against this Irish team until the whistle goes. That's a good psychological weapon to have against anyone.
"Believe me, the players will be far less down in the mouth about Rome than people on the outside maybe think they should be."
Bedraggled they may have looked in the Eternal City. But their eyes were never closed.
THE EXPERTS’ MATCH PREDICTIONS
Hugh Farrelly: IRELAND33 FRANCE19
David Kelly: IRELAND18 FRANCE22
Vincent Hogan: IRELAND25 FRANCE23
George Hook: IRELAND15 FRANCE27
Tony Ward: IRELAND16 FRANCE20
Eddie O’Sullivan: IRELAND25 FRANCE18