independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Absence of back-up plan has become worrying trend

Ireland were outplayed last Sunday but the team seems unable to adapt, writes Jim Glennon

Let's put one thing to bed immediately: the reason Ireland lost last Sunday was that we didn't play well enough. It wasn't the pitch, or the weather; it wasn't the stadium, the Sunday fixture or the crowd.

We simply weren't good enough to beat what was, until last week anyway, a reasonable English team. I say until last week because their progress will have been advanced significantly by the result, something we may come to regret over the next few years.

Sure, luck wasn't on our side with the injuries to Simon Zebo and Jonny Sexton; additional pressure was brought to bear on an already inferior bench but, with every respect to both, neither injury was pivotal to the result.

Last week I reasoned that we needed a big, productive start but that our visitors, well-coached as they were, mightn't be entirely co-operative in that regard. But I didn't envisage their lack of co-operation extending to not conceding a single kickable penalty in the opening 40 minutes, and only three for the entire 80.

Remarkably, their strategy was based on kicking the ball to us, challenging us to take them on and absorbing, easily as it turned out, our efforts to do so. The statistics show that they kicked a massive 25 per cent of all possessions – the highest, by some distance, recorded in any international in 2012 or 2013 (the corresponding figure for their game against Scotland eight days earlier was a mere seven per cent). They played the game as far away from their own line as possible, and an indication of their success in this regard was that, in the second half, they allowed Ireland a toehold within their 22 for all of 44 seconds.

We didn't get the start we needed, mainly because we were again lacking in physicality at the collisions, but also because our ball-handling skills and general discipline were poor, as seen with the opening penalty. England went on to impose themselves mainly through the accurate kicking of half-backs Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs, ably supported by fullback Alex Goode and also by a highly efficient chase which applied real pressure to the fielding defender.

It must be said though that the lack of physicality didn't apply to the scrum, where the front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best, and Mike Ross particularly, anchored by Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy, gave their opponents plenty to think about. By the same token, Frenchman Jerome Garces delivered one of the better refereeing displays we've seen recently.

A deficiency in physicality or a propensity for handling errors is in itself a major disadvantage to bring into a game but to bring both into the biggest game of the year raised obvious questions about the side's preparation for the game and leadership during it.

The lack of a Plan B is a striking feature; notwithstanding Declan Kidney's protestations to the contrary, both of Ireland's defeats this season, to South Africa and England, were notable for a failure to adapt the original strategy to the changed circumstances of the game, as indeed was the second-half display in Wales.

The appointment of Jamie Heaslip as captain, regardless of the circumstances, remains a gamble and both coach and captain now find themselves facing into what may well prove to be a career-defining series of games against Scotland, France and Italy.

Nor should it be forgotten that there's still a championship to be played for; England may well be in pole position, but still have to play France, Italy and Wales. Wales have played themselves back into contention with their win in Paris and will relish the prospect of retaining the championship at England's expense. Three wins for Ireland will position us nicely to benefit should Wales complete their recovery.

Not the biggest challenge an Irish rugby team has faced, certainly, but nothing easy either. Already without Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Richardt Strauss and Tommy Bowe, Ireland will go to Edinburgh without Healy, D'Arcy, McCarthy, Zebo and Sexton too – not a single unit within the team remains intact.

By far the biggest selection decision will be at outhalf where Ronan O'Gara, as the established

back-up for Sexton, will be expected to be Kidney's choice again. Opinions of the outhalf have long been a source of division among Irish fans, but those divisions have mellowed somewhat as the end of a glorious career moves closer and it's clear O'Gara is past his best.

Indeed opinion in Munster is split as to whether he or Ian Keatley should be their first-choice. Further evidence of decline was provided last week when, in conditions and circumstances in which he would have revelled in the past, his performance lacked the control and precision which were once his stock-in-trade and he was outplayed at his own game by Farrell, 14 years his junior.

Kidney's innate loyalty will lean towards giving O'Gara one last shot. The absence of both a clear alternative and so many casualties will ensure the Corkman's presence in Murrayfield; Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Keatley will have to wait until the summer tour, at least, for their opportunity.

That said, and none of them will agree, but they may be better off away from the limelight of the next four weeks, for the road ahead is fraught with danger.

jglennon@independent.ie

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