independent

Friday 18 April 2014

George Hook: Kidney’s risky calls leave little cause for optimism

The accepted wisdom is that South Africa, missing 10 players, are going to be a soft touch this evening and that it will be the pre-cursor to a three-match winning spree for Ireland.

True, the Boks have been weakened, but the home side are also far from full strength. They've been shorn of two Lions captains in Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, are without two of the best back-rows in the world in Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris, and with risky selections at full-back, scrum-half and a new captain, Ireland are hardly in a position to be optimistic.

Boks coach Heyneke Meyer's rugby philosophy is that eight of the 15 players on the field are forwards and if his team cannot win the battle up front, there is no point having a backline on the field. It's a point he has to make over and over again when he is criticised for being too conservative or not having a Plan B, but he makes no apologies for it.

His tactics have a lot of merit -- South African rugby has always thrived on being able to physically dominate the opposition.

powerful

Even without the likes of Victor Matfield, Andries Bekker, Bakkies Botha, John Smit, Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies and Juan Smith, they still have an extremely powerful and physical pack lining out today.

Meyer also places a huge amount of emphasis on set-pieces and restarts -- reports suggest he practises restarts over and over in training to ensure his team get it right. The philosophy is simple: win your restarts, win possession and win a psychological edge.

The Springboks backline is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Pat Lambie likes to take the ball flat on the gain line and at pace. On the other hand he has two slow, bash-up-the-middle centres in Jean de Villiers and Jaco Taute. The Springboks wingers might not see a lot of ball. Full-back Zane Kirchner is a solid if slightly unexciting pick. He's good under the high ball and a strong tackler.

The main reason Lambie is preferred to Morne Steyn is his goal-kicking, which has been brilliant for the Natal Sharks in the Currie Cup and Super 15 this season. There is some concern that Lambie could not get into the Sharks team when Freddie Michalak was there; the Frenchman has since returned to Toulon.

Lambie made all of his kicks in the Currie Cup final against the Bulls and remained pretty composed considering the Sharks' pack was torn to pieces and had a disaster at the line-out and scrum. He seems to have buckets of talent, but rumours suggest he is only filling the Springboks jersey until Johan Goosen comes back to fitness.

He is young, talented and will enjoy the day if his pack gets on top. Lambie will punish Ireland if penalties are conceded.

Ireland have questionable selections at full-back, scrum-half and in their choice of captain. Declan Kidney has confounded the pundits, but he is entitled to his opinions if he gets performances in the next few weeks. Losses today and against Argentina will probably guarantee his departure at the end of the Six Nations.

Playing Simon Zebo is a huge risk. The Corkman can kick, catch and tackle, but so far he's done so in the relatively small area patrolled by the wing. The full-back is responsible for the entire width of the pitch and is part of a three-man defensive team.

If South Africa just kick the ball up in the air, as they did so memorably against Rob Kearney and the Lions, then Zebo will be fine. However, if Lambie has the wit to vary his kicking and use his wings imaginatively, then the No 15 could cut a lonely figure.

Yet again, Conor Murray is an astonishing choice. His abject failings in the Heineken Cup have been forgotten and the successful Leinster half-back pairing has been broken up.

Surely the Irish game plan should not be an arm-wrestle against the Boks but rather a faster and smarter game to use the superior inventiveness in the backline? Currently, Murray may well rank below Eoin Reddan and Paul Marshall in terms of speed of delivery.

The young Ulster player has been hard done by.

There is a belief abroad that in the professional era, captaincy does not matter. Try telling that to Tom Kiernan and Ciaran Fitzgerald, or to Richie McCaw and Martin Johnson.

Jamie Heaslip as a player has never displayed the breadth of thinking and invention required of a leader.

If one bases the argument that leaders like O'Driscoll and O'Connell used the power of their own performance to lead then Heaslip fails on that count also, as his last few years have consisted of patchy involvement.

Sadly, today we will see the humiliation of almost a century and a half of Irish rugby. A player will be capped for Ireland without having played in a match on Irish soil.

Two weeks ago, Michael Bent had never even set foot in this country. The record shows that we have bought incompetent props from south of the equator and even if this time we get it right, the debacle at Twickenham is no justification for the cheapening of the Ireland shirt.

One can see Kidney's dilemma. Despite being hailed as the saviour of the Irish scrum, Mike Ross has not had a good early season. Today will be a stern test for him and, before the final whistle blows, for Bent.

An Irish win is unlikely, particularly given the safety-first style employed in the recent past. It is time to show some invention. Jonny Sexton must kick with vision, give his centres space and unleash the most exciting sight in the game, Zebo running at full tilt.

Take South Africa to win with a lot of Lambie kicks and just one try.

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