Tuesday 19 September 2017

Hugh Farrelly: Kidney points the finger at provinces

Hugh Farrelly

NO contest, no mercy and no prospect of things getting any easier for Declan Kidney and his Ireland squad on an expedition which has already earned the dreaded tag of 'tour to hell.'

The truly frightening aspect to this defeat is that Ireland were not particularly bad. They have won games with worse performances than the one they gave on Saturday, but they still could not come close to their hosts, who could have racked up 60 points had it not been for some poor decisions and desperate Irish defence.

For the world champions, kicking off a new era under Steve Hansen, this was a routine victory in a match they never expected to lose. For the Irish, it was a crushing confirmation of where they sit in rugby's pecking order.

injury

Midway through the second half, with the match long since marked down in the 'W' column, the Eden Park attendance of 43,300 (considerably less than a full house) resorted to entertaining themselves with Mexican waves -- insult added to an injury list that has ruled out Keith Earls of the second Test in Christchurch and created the real possibility of Ireland being forced to start the Connacht props Brett Wilkinson and Ronan Loughney after Cian Healy and Declan Fitzpatrick both picked up knocks.

Already compromised by the unavailability and retirement of a clutch of senior players, Kidney is struggling to put a team together, while his counterpart has enough quality options to select three Test sides all capable of spanking the Irish.

Hansen is a wonderfully lugubrious figure and displayed none of the elation he was entitled to feel when assessing the performance afterwards.

However, while the New Zealand coach brings deadpan to a new level, his players have no problem expressing themselves, playing with an exuberance that will surely see them run away with the Rugby Championship later this year.

Their new caps -- Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and hat-trick hero Julian Savea -- flourished alongside the spine of experience and excellence provided by Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith.

Their superiority emphasised the contrast between club and international rugby, a constant theme on this trip, and Saturday emphasised how the Super 15 leaves the Heineken Cup in the ha'penny place.

Irish players who routinely boss affairs playing for their provinces in Europe could not live with the pace, intensity and creativity of the All Blacks and it was a sobering and instructive experience for Kidney and his coaching team.

The Ireland coach knew what he was getting into coming down here for three Tests, but he is battling against the skewed priorities of a system which seems to favour provincial success over national progression, nowhere more than at prop, where overseas players continue to restrict game time for Irish-qualified alternatives.

As it turned out, Fitzpatrick, with just seven Heineken Cup starts for Ulster, put in a decent shift at tight-head and Loughney held his own when he came on for his first cap, but Kidney suggested that the preparations for this tour were compromised by provincial prerogatives.

"For us to be really focused for this, would have cost in the season earlier on," said Kidney.

"We would have had to have given up a number of other things. I don't think the appetite is there for us to give up those other things to prepare for this tour in the way that you would have really, really needed to. That's fine.

"We had two debutants at tight-head, it is a pity that we have to be using the Irish team to give them experience. In fairness, they went out there and gave it their best shot and they will be better for it.

"This was at an intensity and with a physicality fellas haven't been used to playing at on a week-in, week-out basis. This is Test rugby and that is what I'm hoping will be understood."

After being relatively competitive in the first quarter, when Earls and Simon Zebo had try-scoring chances that would have infused confidence had they been finished, New Zealand pulled away swiftly and the issue of cutting out turnovers was the dominant Irish theme afterwards.

They also need to look hard at their defensive policy. Fergus McFadden, a quality centre, was badly exposed against Savea on the wing and though Ireland never shirked their tackling duties, with Sean O'Brien a stand-out presence, they need to employ the rush defence and shooters more regularly.

"Sometimes we were standing off, but that was when we were caught for numbers. I don't think it was so much a line speed thing as a ruck speed thing," was Kidney's take, but the priority for Christchurch has to be to close down the space and time afforded to an All Blacks backline that oozes menace.

They will take some encouragement from the scrum and an excellently conceived try for McFadden, following a sublime kick through by Jonathan Sexton, but the breakdown, turnovers and the fact their primary runners made very little headway are major concerns.

Selection-wise, Kidney could look at starting Eoin Reddan at scrum-half for, while Conor Murray was a significant presence in defence, the speed of his service paled in comparison to Smith's.

Kevin McLaughlin and Donncha O'Callaghan may also come into consideration to beef up the forwards but, in truth, there is a touch of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic about selection changes as New Zealand have stated their intention to improve on this display for the return of Test rugby to Christchurch.

Kidney conceded that is a truly daunting prospect. "It is, but we knew that from the day that we saw the fixtures," he said. "It's not like the boys did not work hard, but we're going to have to learn. Can we be a better side at the end of this? Absolutely.

"I know everybody expects success, but I've been involved in making teams before and it just doesn't happen overnight.

"It takes a while to build up that experience and that is why we're better off playing another two Test matches. If it looks daunting and if fellas don't fancy it, they need to go home, but I don't see anyone doing that."

"The thing that would keep me going is that I have been in this long enough to have seen this before. I know what it takes to bring a team around."

Knowing and doing are two different things, however, and the world champions are not a side to look to for leniency. Given the emotion involved next weekend and the All Blacks' desire to raise their game, Christchurch is shaping up to be the perfect storm.

NEW ZEALAND -- I Dagg; Z Guildford, C Smith, S Williams, J Savea (A Cruden 65); D Carter, A Smith (P Weepu 56); T Woodcock, A Hore (H Elliot 63), O Franks (B Franks 63); B Retallick, S Whitelock; V Vito (A Thomson 45), R McCaw (capt), K Read.

IRELAND -- R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), K Earls (D Cave 72), S Zebo; J Sexton (R O'Gara 55), C Murray (E Reddan 62); C Healy (S Cronin 72), R Best, D Fitzpatrick (R Loughney 55); D Tuohy (D O'Callaghan 62), D Ryan; P O'Mahony (K McLaughlin 62), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

REF -- N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent

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