Irish weakened by false belief in the strength of their icons
Published 03/09/2011 | 05:00
To take my mind off two months of the World Cup, I have been reading a history of the fall of France at the beginning of World War Two. Astonishingly, as I delved into French incompetence and complacency about the defensive strength of the Maginot Line, I started to see similarities to the preparation of the Irish squad for the tournament in New Zealand.
Military experts extolled the Maginot Line as a work of genius, believing it would prevent any further invasions from the east (notably, from Germany).
However, the German army in World War Two largely bypassed the Maginot Line by invading through the Ardennes forest and via the Low Countries, completely sweeping by the line and conquering France in days. As such, the Maginot Line has come to mean a strategy or object that people put hope into but fails miserably.
It is also the best known symbol of the adage that "generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it".
Declan Kidney and the rest of the general staff responsible for the team are certainly fighting this battle using the same strategy that won a Grand Slam. Sadly, though, the game has moved on. The players are older, less fit, carrying more injuries and the plan is little different from before. More importantly, it is light years away from the strategies employed by the top teams.
Be that as it may, it was not what worried me as I read my history tome. Ireland's weakness may be like France in 1940: a false belief in the strength of its iconic structures. As Ireland left for New Zealand, there was unquestioning acceptance that despite concerns about the lack of depth in Irish rugby, we were blessed at No 10. In Jonny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara, we had fly-halves that were the envy of most countries in the competition.
That may not be the case. If, as is likely, the coach will start his important games with the younger man, he may be making a crucial error. All the evidence since the Heineken Cup final has demonstrated that there are crucial weaknesses in Sexton's game, inherent since his schooldays, that have not been questioned or analysed.
Would we not select the man that masterminded victories over the best in Europe? Is the argument generally being put forward.
It is a compelling argument, but it ignores one crucial component to those victories. The Leinster backline was coached by Joe Schmidt; the Irish backline is coached by Alan Gaffney. Based purely on the on-field evidence, Leinster used innovative running lines with a striking full-back, whereas Ireland are one-dimensional.
Worrying, too, is Sexton's apparent inability to impose himself on the game plan. His choice of when to kick tactically is poor and his attacking game consists of slavishly moving the ball across the line interspersed with the occasional, and telegraphed, dummy loop. His game plan seems to be decided in the dressing-room before the game rather than reading what is in front of him.
That failure was classically illustrated at Thomond Park in the Magner's League final when he clearly had decided that Munster were a chicken waiting to be plucked and ran the ball fruitlessly from inside his own half. He gave the home team targets to hit and, as the error-count mounted, he stubbornly refused to kick for position.
Ultimately, great fly-halves are determined by their ability to perform under pressure and, like their American cousin, the quarterback, they perform a vital role in keeping their team moving forward. Jack Kyle, Ollie Campbell and, in his pomp, Ronan O'Gara husbanded the forwards' resources and played a vital role in team morale.
When I first saw the picture of that famous Sexton try and his aggression towards O'Gara, his opponent, I put it down to youthful enthusiasm. However, I worried when I saw his reaction when Keith Earls went for the same ball and caused a knock-on against England.
Sexton, if selected in the vital games against Australia and Italy, is more than just the No 10. He is the playmaker and the very heartbeat of the side. It is distinctly possible that Brian O'Driscoll will not play in one of those vital group games. Then the mantle will fall on the fly-half and I hope the young man -- again, if selected -- will be up for it.
Sport is full of stories that read like fiction of the young man that grasps his opportunity and becomes a hero. Hollywood immortalised the moment in '42nd Street', when the kid was told: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star."
I also remember stories of almost forgotten heroes of the past brought back for one last hurrah and saving the day for club and country. I finished the history book this week and I hope and pray that wherever we put our faith it will be rewarded.