Vincent Hogan: Ireland seem caught in a dangerous loop of doubt
Published 14/03/2011 | 05:00
Great, martyred sighs in Cardiff then as a ball-boy's sleight of hand unravelled a puzzle that had, palpably, been beyond Wales.
The post mortems lasted longer than a Wagner opera as Ireland seethed and the Welsh, suddenly peacocks in a local field, met their good fortune with smiles that never quite reached their eyes.
How could such a thing happen? The sport is policed more vigorously than a high-walled penitentiary, yet the Millennium was all but taped off as a crime scene.
Suddenly, rugby scribes recited Law 19.2 like something learnt in kindergarten, and the real villain of the piece, Scottish tough-judge Peter Allan, was roundly excoriated as the worst example of "a Magners League ref".
Even the rain stopped, presumably in sympathy, after Mike Phillips' touch-down. And the normally peaceable Declan Kidney, his face a murky purple, looked like he might be in need of restraining when an English journalist wondered aloud if he was "aware" of the rules.
"I'm fully aware of them," said the Irish coach, all but handling the question with tongs.
It was only Ireland's second defeat in the Welsh capital since recession last had the country in ankle-chains, and that it could be traced to an act of larceny may not have been inconvenient for a careless team.
They were better than Wales on Saturday. For an hour, they played rugby that was thrilling and imaginative whilst, all the time, looking utterly assured in defence. Yet, poor decision-making on and off the pitch would keep them within a poor side's reach.
Maybe the day was captured best in microcosm at the death. Jonny Sexton's penalty found a wonderful touch deep in the Welsh '22' and Sean Cronin's throw located David Wallace at the tail. Ireland went wide with glorious élan and, when the ball reached Paddy Wallace, all he needed to be was a simple link in a chain.
Keith Earls was outside him and moving like a bullet train, yet -- inexplicably -- Wallace jinked back infield on a ruinous personal skite. It was like driving purposefully into traffic when already late for an appointment.
The ball eventually came to Cian Healy, only to squirt from his grasp like a puckered balloon when Jamie Roberts made the hit.
Earls was in little doubt a try had gone abegging. Asked if he felt frustrated, the Moyross man was candid. "Yeah," he said, "it was very frustrating. Paddy Wallace is an experienced man, he made his own decision so I have to back him up but, yeah, I think if the ball came out there, I would have snuck in in the corner.
"But, as I said, Paddy didn't think so and he went for it."
On a day when the set-piece was, largely, an area of efficient stalemate, Ireland just needed to be clinical. And the portents were good inside three minutes when both Brian O'Driscoll's 24th Championship try and Ronan O'Gara's convert had the historians aflutter.
Tommy Bowe made the opening, darting between Roberts and Alun Wyn Jones as if they had concrete in their shoes.
The Monaghan man was in wonderful form, openly taking on his Ospreys colleague Shane Williams at every opportunity. And Ronan O'Gara's pitch-wisdom, his understanding of space, had Ireland moving marvellously through the gears.
So all the flame-throwing and fanfare of the preliminaries was quickly replaced by foreboding in the natives. In fact, when, 16 minutes in, Sean O'Brien was penalised for not releasing, there wasn't a single murmur of local protest when Wales took the option of a kick for goal.
James Hook's effort hit the upright, but a pattern had already been established. Ireland essentially played the rugby and Wales, specifically through Hook and Lee Byrne, kicked everything back over their heads.
Hook's two penalties and one by Leigh Halfpenny to O'Gara's one brought Wales to within a point on the cusp of half-time, but then another glorious Irish move almost had Sean O'Brien in before Phillips was penalised and O'Gara did the needful.
At 13-9, Ireland weren't exactly cruising but, as O'Driscoll would aver later, they weren't feeling "any huge pressure" either.
So how on earth were they held scoreless for the remainder?
It is a question they will need to explore with the starkest honesty. No question, Wales took an energy charge from the Phillips score that they weren't exactly entitled to. But self-pity isn't the refuge of a serious team.
In any event, most of the Irish players weren't even aware that an act of larceny had been perpetrated.
As Earls revealed, "Lads were going around afterwards wondering what had happened. Because I don't think everyone knew what was going on. But, once it came out, you know it was sickening."
Had it decided the game?
"Well that's seven points there for nothing. So, yeah, I think it was a big factor. It's bad to lose, but when you lose to something like that, it's sickening. It's heartbreaking.
"I was on the other side of the pitch. From what I was looking at, Tommy (Bowe) had turned around and stuff. And he's familiar with the rules. He knows things well and he had his back turned.
"Next thing. Big roar from the crowd and Mike Phillips is down the wing! The rule is there. You can't take a quick line-out with another ball. So it's sickening."
O'Driscoll's gentle entreaties to Mr Kaplan fell on deaf ears, the referee's trust in his touch-judge effectively ending the debate. A pity the line was being run by Mr Magoo.
Earls' wonderful burst almost produced an instant riposte, but Ireland had to make do with a relatively simple penalty, Sexton pushing the kick right and wide.
The Leinster man looked tight as a drum on his inclusion and, given O'Gara's luminous confidence, the switch at 10 had already raised a few eyebrows.
It was mentioned to Kidney later that the Welsh 'try' had come from Sexton kicking out on the full and the Irish coach, naturally, launched into a stirring defence of his young fly-half.
But he finds himself in an uncomfortable place this week. The revelation that Kidney "let fly" at the team in a meeting at Carton House last Tuesday brought to mind an outburst at half-time in the 2000 Heineken Cup final against Northampton. It was felt by some Munster players at the time that the eruption was contrived and, accordingly, missed its target.
He is a naturally quiet and reasoned communicator, so the art of reading riot acts isn't a speciality. When a quiet man raises his voice, it can go one of two ways -- an attentive audience or an epidemic of shuffling feet.
With the game spiralling away from them, Ireland seemed to revert to a nervy kicking game. Kidney denied there had been any change of tactic, evincing "mix and match" as an expression of sane game management.
And, in this, Earls did not hesitate to back the coach. Lauding the Welsh defence as "incredible", he argued: "We're just trying to mix it up. At the start we were running most of the ball but now we know teams are reading us better.
"They're putting no-one back in the back field. They're keeping a line of 14 there, so the space is in behind. That's our time to kick it."
Rory Best made the dry, salient observation that Ireland had enough chances before and after the Phillips try to win the game. And O'Driscoll, to be fair, ascribed to a similar view.
But, not for the first time, they had left a precious victory behind and, ball-boy or not, they seem caught in a dangerous loop of doubt. England are next up in Dublin. Defeat would be worse than a gall stone.