Sport Rugby

Thursday 19 January 2017

Ireland brought to a standstill

Best laments failure to adapt to Welsh game plan as Gatland gets better of Kidney, says Brendan Fanning

Published 09/10/2011 | 05:00

Sometimes things are not exactly as they seem. If you watched Ireland's World Cup exit in Wellington from the comfort of your living room then you won't have appreciated just how capricious was the wind. So when in the first quarter Ireland passed up three penalties from wide-angled positions, they were not as straightforward as they appeared.

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This was not arrogance from a team who thought they had a right to score anytime they got into the Wales 22. Maybe it was the reaction of a side who didn't want to risk missing and losing the position they had worked so hard to get.

Similarly, if you watched the same Ireland team in Dunedin the previous week, you would have come away hugely impressed by the basics of their game. Faced with a highly emotional assault from Italy, they dismantled them with an aggression and accuracy that we hadn't seen all year, apart from the win over England in March. You were relieved that having been given three key opportunities against the Australians, earlier in the campaign, they took full advantage; and here again against Italy they hammered their opponents' every error. If the Italians kicked badly, Ireland countered well. And if the Italians came in high at the tackle, then Ireland's carriers broke that tackle.

So far so good. When Ireland regrouped in Wellington, they did their review of the game and realised that things would be different against Wales. The chances of Warren Gatland's mob either offering them so many countering opportunities by kicking badly, or feeding the Sean O'Brien-Stephen Ferris campaign by tacking high, were non-existent.

So they made provision for the rainy day . . . didn't they?

It rained again yesterday. It rains all the time out here. And Ireland were caught standing in the downpour with no umbrella. They looked like a side who had learned nothing from what had gone before.

Wales, meanwhile, put a ransom on the heads of O'Brien and Ferris and told their tacklers to come in under the radar. If it meant raising the risk of an Irish offload so be it, but under no circumstances was either flanker to leave the Cake Tin with yardage stats that made them look like running backs in gridiron.

"At the end of the day they'd obviously done their homework on us," a battered-looking Rory Best said afterwards. "They slowed a lot of ball -- it was hard to get. The likes of Warburton and Lydiate were on the floor all day slowing down ball."

They knew this would happen too, that allied to a very quick line speed from the Welsh defence their opponents would look to slow the green wave further by getting hands in at the breakdown. Welsh research on referee Craig Joubert told them that he would let them away with this, and that if they managed to get a drive on those stand-up tackles that Ireland use to turn opposition ball over, and get them to ground, then Joubert would do the exact opposite of what Bryce Lawrence had done in the Ireland-Australia game, and give them time to get the ball out.

"Perhaps we struggled to adapt a little," Best continued. "But . . . it was sort of one of those where you're trying to adapt on the run and in the last 20 minutes or so we tried and there's no doubt they had their tails up, but you'd have to be very disappointed that you couldn't figure something out on the run."

That was as honest a comment as you would expect from so honest a player. And the fact that Ireland couldn't do that, the fact that they were so flummoxed by Wales' line speed and sub-radar tackling, meant they got what they deserved from this World Cup: the achievement of winning a pool, followed by the familiarity of going no further than a quarter-final.

This final game would have looked better from your living room. Honestly. A couple of hours after the final whistle we watched the television version and there was no feeling for how static was Ireland's attack. This went beyond forwards taking the ball up from a standing start, and included a mental stasis that afflicts even our key attacking players like Brian O'Driscoll.

When you are in the stadium and at an elevated position you see how often the game can be changed by a player prepared to leave his position to go looking for the ball. Yes, this alters a team's shape, but for the better. The irony was that the only time Ireland altered their shape was in the final quarter when they lost the plot entirely, with players clustered around the ball incoherently.

And we got a good appreciation of just how organised Wales were in attack, without being predictable. Their depth was consistently good, and the ball carrier always had more than one option. On TV this looked like a tight game. In the stadium, you would have come away with a different impression.

That impression is that Ireland's attack is, as it was for virtually all of last season, sterile. Alan Gaffney is moving on and he has been a frustrated figure towards the end of his time in the job. It remains to be seen how Declan Kidney will replace him.

The final image we will take from the day was in the last minute, when, with another decision going against Ireland, O'Driscoll and Donncha O'Callaghan, two of the warhorses of this group, were arguing the toss with Joubert.

If either of them is back at a World Cup then it will be as either punter or pundit. Their frustration was palpable. And you could understand it, for the referee had given them nothing, and indeed 10 minutes earlier made one of the worst decisions of this tournament at an attacking Ireland scrum, when he penalised Cian Healy for "dipping -- folding in half" when it was inescapable that Adam Jones had gone to ground.

Whatever, their day is done and the feeling that their years of service would get its reward is done as well. Ireland came into this World Cup on the back of a bad year, and left it with more than they had a right to expect.

It's just that yesterday that's not how it seemed.

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