Few positives to take from laboured victory
THE question doing the rounds among disgruntled Irish supporters on Saturday night echoed the famous one directed at George Best by a disapproving bell-boy: "Where did it all go wrong?"
While a 10-point win over Samoa cannot compare with Miss World and a bed-full of cash, the fact that there was such concern after Ireland ended their six-game losing run emphasised the worrying nature of this performance. For the second week in a row, Ireland struggled at first phase (line-out against South Africa, the scrum against Samoa) and displayed an overall lack of conviction that is deeply unsettling ahead of next weekend's assignment against an awesome All Blacks outfit.
It required the game-winning experience of Irish half-backs Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer (playing together for the 55th time at international level) to steer Ireland over the line, the scrum-half's quick tap allowing O'Gara to sell a sweet dummy and surge over under the posts after 66 minutes.
That brought O'Gara's contribution to 15 points in what was (two first-half block-downs aside) a decent performance and Ireland were able to see out the remaining minutes until captain Brian O'Driscoll brought the game to its conclusion by leathering the ball into the stands with more than a hint of frustration.
Before assessing Ireland, credit has to be paid to a wonderful Samoan effort which, after Paul Williams kicked them to within three points 15 minutes into the second-half, looked like it could be rewarded with a shock victory.
The visitors were completely dominant at that point, pinning Ireland deep into their own half and, given the uncertainty that permeated the Irish ranks at that point, the introduction of fresh legs into the forwards proved to be timely and effective.
Given what he has contributed to Munster and Irish rugby over the last 10 years, it was sad to see John Hayes trudge off disconsolately after a display that confirmed his time as an international force may be up. Zak Taulafo had Hayes in all sorts of bother at scrum time while Tom Court consistently fell foul of referee Keith Brown on the loose-head side.
The result was four penalties and four free-kicks that lifted Samoa and deflated Ireland and it was only when Hayes departed and Court switched to tight-head, with Cian Healy coming in at loose, that the scrum settled down and actually began to dominate -- helped by Rory Best bringing his technique and experience to bear at hooker.
The man he replaced, Sean Cronin, had put in a good day's shift at the line-out and was Ireland's liveliest ball-carrier. Too many of his colleagues insisted on taking ball from a standing start in what appeared to be a concerted pod policy that was easily contained by the aggressive Samoan defence.
They were able to fashion a try for Jamie Heaslip after 18 minutes and the TMO denied Ireland another from Healy in the second half but, as attacking play goes, this was a million miles away from the verve the All Blacks showed when dismantling Scotland a few hours later.
Ireland's back-line creativity was not helped by these forwards standing in the way and when they did seek to move the ball, they were met by impressive Samoan line speed and ferocious tackling. The conditions may have been cited as a reason there was not more invention on show -- and O'Gara's kicking game was reasonably well executed -- but the wind and rain was far worse the previous weekend and the best teams (think New Zealand's second Test against the Lions in 2005) can turn it on in any weather.
Stringer made the most of what was presented to him, which as a rule was torturously slow ruck ball, and there will need to be a huge improvement in the quality of ruck ball if Ireland hope to make any sort of impact on the New Zealanders. There was plenty of good possession from Devin Toner, who put in a masterful line-out display in his first international appearance, and it was extremely disappointing that this ball could not be turned into one decent back-line move.
It was Samoa who produced this dour game's moment of exquisite skill when out-half Tasesa Lavea did wonderfully well to field a wayward pass from man of the match Kahn Fotuali and sent Seilala Mapusua scorching through the gap created by Paddy Wallace being instinctively drawn onto Lavea as he reached for possession. The London Irish man found Alesana Tuilagi, who had come in off his wing without being tracked by Tommy Bowe, and no-one was going to stop the Leicester giant from 10 yards out.
Confidence, or lack of it, became a major talking point afterwards, as did lack of leadership. Once Samoa spotted Ireland's vulnerabilities, they oozed self-belief as they went in search of an upset, while the Irish appeared cowed by comparison. O'Driscoll failed to exert his authority or ability on the game, which is a concern considering how central he is to Ireland putting in a credible performance next weekend. His counterpart Mahonri Schwalger was a combination of pride and frustration as he reflected on the one that got away.
"We should have won that game. We came on this tour with the attitude that we can compete with the top teams in the world," said the Taranaki hooker.
"We went out there and gave it everything we had. I'm proud of what my boys did out there today. Now we have to build on that performance. What we find is that top teams make less mistakes. If we cut down on our mistakes we'll be one of the top teams as well.
"Ireland got away with a few things. Even in the last 10 minutes we thought we could have won the game. Ireland were relying on their set piece to dominate the game but were quite surprised by the way we fronted up."
With Declan Kidney and O'Driscoll at the helm, you can never rule out a phoenix-from-the-ashes performance against the odds next Saturday but, on the evidence of two disappointing showings, New Zealand will be fancied to put up a cricket score.
It points towards a pragmatic strategy of playing a territory-based, kicking game to try and frustrate the All Blacks' attacking instincts. However, the pod-pop approach using close-in runners will be meat and drink to the New Zealander's, who have the added capacity of translating turnover ball into tries.
Kidney faces a mammoth week getting his selection right and instilling belief into his players ahead of a truly daunting showdown. Ireland still have the playing and management personnel to return to the rugby that saw them finish 2009 unbeaten with the world coach of the year but, based on recent displays, predicting as much would be an act of blind faith.
IRELAND -- L Fitzgerald; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, P Wallace, A Trimble; R O'Gara, P Stringer (I Boss 77); T Court, S Cronin (R Best 61), J Hayes (C Healy 64); D O'Callaghan, D Toner (D Ryan 68); D Leamy, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (S Ferris 61).
SAMOA -- P Williams; D Lemi, G Pisi (G Williams 78), S Mapusua, A Tuilagi; T Lavea (J Poluleuligaga 69), K Fotualii; Z Taulafo (S Lemalu 77), M Schwalger, A Perenise; F Levi (J Tekori 71), K Thompson; O Treviranus (A Aiono 71), M Salavea, G Stowers.
REF -- K Brown (New Zealand)