Friday 26 May 2017

O'Gara seals hollow victory

Ireland 20 Samoa 10

Brendan Fanning at the Aviva Stadium

Even allowing for the fact that we live in an age of spin and counter spin, when awful news is dressed up as no more than a speed-bump on the road forward, we got a classic from the man on the public address system at Aviva Stadium yesterday.

Half-way through the second half he told us, with some excitement, that the attendance of 30,955 represented a record in the fixture. Indeed!

At the time we were having visions of all sorts of other records. Not since 2005 when they beat Argentina have the Samoans come first against a top-ranked country, but around the hour mark there was every reason to believe they could close the deal against Ireland in a stadium that statistically was more than half full.

At that point full-back Paul Williams was lining up another penalty -- albeit a long shot -- having slotted one six minutes earlier to close the gap to 13-10 in Ireland's favour. He missed. And four minutes later Ireland came back and took seven points to make it 20-10.

That emptied the tourists. Not that it filled up the home team a whole lot. Faced with the prospect of losing seven games in a row, of which five would have been Test defeats had the Samoans done what they were capable of doing, Ireland came through in one piece.

And the shape of that piece? Eh, distorted. And nowhere more than the scrum which replaced last week's lineout as the point of most pain. Whatever was going on between the Ireland front row and referee Keith Brown -- who was appointed to the elite panel only last April -- they were seeing things from vastly different perspectives. This whole business of crouching and pausing and pursing your lips before engagements has given referees an unfeasible input into an area which already was ram jam.

Or perhaps it's just that Ireland can't scrummage very well. Either way, the prospect of the All Blacks, who have had their own issues at this phase lately, on Saturday is forbidding. There is so much for Ireland to fix before then.

They had more slow ball yesterday than they knew what to do with. Or put another way, Samoa had far more decent possession and what they left for Ireland wouldn't feed a sparrow. And despite aggressive and willing carries from Sean O'Brien, too often the cleanout was sloppy and the starter plays used to get the thing going again simply spluttered.

When you didn't see any way past this you felt the Samoans -- who have only won once previously against Ireland -- were in with a real chance. In the half-time huddle their excellent No 8 George Stowers was passionate in exhorting his team-mates to play the game in Ireland's end of the field. At that point, they trailed 13-7, despite having fallen behind to a Ronan O'Gara penalty inside 25 seconds -- a start that should have kicked the home team onwards.

As the first half had developed they got more into the game, driven by a terrific amount of carries by their front five, and first-class back-up from man of the match Kahn Fotualii at scrumhalf.

Their try saved them for both its timing and execution were spot on. With Ireland at 10-0, after Jamie Heaslip had scored from close-in on 18 minutes, another score for them would immediately have left the tourists with a game to chase. Instead, they benefited from one of those infrequent rugby moments where a poorly directed pass pays out. As Tasesa Lavea reached for a pass that looked too far, Paddy Wallace stepped in to hit him only for the outhalf to get it away cleanly to Seilala Mapasua. The centre found Alesana Tuilagi on his inside with a great pass and that was that. Williams knocked over the conversion and it was a 10-7 game.

O'Gara made it 13-7 on the half hour with a penalty but from the moment O'Brien knocked-on the drop off to start the second half, Ireland started slipping further off the mark.

Aside from debutant Devin Toner's quality out of touch, and the willingness of their defence, there was nothing positive to say about their play with ball in hand. So much of rugby nowadays is played on the front foot because of how the breakdown is reffed, but this was a step back to how to cope with crap ball, and Ireland failed miserably there.

It was O'Gara who eased the worry when on 66 minutes he got over from a quick tap by Peter Stringer under the Samoan posts. When moments earlier Donncha O'Callaghan had fished the ball out of a ruck in Ireland's half, you expected the whistle to go and for Williams to have another pop at the posts. Instead he was lining up behind his own sticks as O'Gara added the points and the issue of who would win was put to bed.

The last act of the game was Brian O'Driscoll whacking the ball off the park, which if you could have translated it into words would have come out along the lines of 'get me out of here'. Not for the first time in our history, we are going into a game with the All Blacks from a position of weakness.

Sunday Independent

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