Ireland need to focus on firm set-piece foundation
A NATION turns its lonely eyes to Mike Ross. New interpretations, fluidity, spatial awareness, lines of running -- none of the buzzwords of modern-day rugby matter a jot if you do not have a functioning scrum and line-out.
On Saturday, Ireland had a 66pc success rate on their scrum ball and only a 50pc return on their line-out throws. No team can hope to achieve anything meaningful against the top sides with those stats and the starting point heading into the Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina games has to be locking the scrum and securing clean line-out ball.
Ireland have a world-class back row that struggled to impose itself on the Springboks because it had no scrum platform to operate from. Jamie Heaslip is one of the best in the world at picking off the back, but it is impossible to generate momentum when the scrum is coming back on top of you.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the defeat was Tony Buckley's failure to kick on from an encouraging summer tour. England showed on Saturday how the All Blacks can be rattled at scrum-time, with their tight-head Dan Cole giving Tony Woodcock a torrid time. Buckley is unlikely to be involved on Saturday week and it's doubtful whether John Hayes can do the same as Cole.
Kidney said in these pages last week that when management are assessing props, they have to look at more than just scrummaging, and Hayes' work-rate and Buckley's power in the loose and at ruck time are compelling arguments in their favour. But the scrum has to come first. Ross is the best scrummaging tight-head available, Tom Court is the best loose-head scrummager (and second only to Ross on the tight-head side, as he showed when replacing Buckley). Start those two in the front-row and the scrum is no longer an issue.
Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer injected urgency off the bench, with both tapping penalties to keep the pressure on. Again there was an element of necessity to this tactic, because they knew that if the ball was kicked to touch, there was no guarantee of winning it back.
Devin Toner is Ireland's best source of guaranteed possession. At 6ft 10ins, it doesn't matter if it is Victor Matfield or Michael Jordan jumping against him, if you lift Toner and throw high enough, it's ball in the bank. Leo Cullen also knows all about air supply and is comfortable jumping at two or four.
Backs will always look for 'off-the-top' ball from the middle or back of the line-out because it is most conducive to running their plays and Kidney admitted that some of the options and calls on Saturday were not best suited to the conditions and Bok predators. Better to have slow ball at two than no ball at all.
Saturday left Ireland with many lessons to absorb but the main ones revolve around the set-pieces -- lock the scrum, secure the line-out and build from there.