Alan Quinlan: Absence of Paul O'Connell's leadership keenly felt at Twickenham
Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30
Brian O'Driscoll left us in 2014, Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy a year later. All that class and intelligence stolen by time.
We wondered and worried what impact their absence would have. And now we know. Three defeats in four games, and three second-half leads coughed up in the closing quarter of this Six Nations Championship, has left us searching for leaders rather than just answers.
We have a team that has proven to be good enough to go 13 points up on Wales, six points clear of France and four ahead of England - but a squad that has failed to close the deal.
You don't want to be nasty about those players. Quite the opposite in fact because if Saturday proved anything, it was how honest and brave they are.
They defended for their lives in the first half and then seized the initiative at the start of the second. They can be proud of how they played. Yet they lost. Again.
In a different year with a different team, we'd have won. We'd have had O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, O'Connell plus Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe, Peter O'Mahony - 474 caps between them.
And while you can't keep throwing a nostalgic eye to the past, and while you can't instantly cure the injuries which have continued to pile up, you have a duty to explain why Ireland can get ahead of good teams at the 55-minute mark before losing their way in the final quarter.
And it comes down to two things. First, that each time in this Championship, Wales, France and England have emptied their bench to replace quality with quality.
We, on the other hand, were missing O'Mahony, Bowe, O'Brien, Iain Henderson, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald, Mike McCarthy, Marty Moore and Dave Kearney on Saturday. Earlier in the campaign, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls were also absent. And it has cost us.
The 60th-minute cavalry charges from the Welsh, French and English have decided the battles.
Can you imagine how different it would be if we had have been able to start Ross, Healy, Henderson, O'Brien and O'Mahony - with the option of sending Jack McGrath, Moore, Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander into the fray for the closing stages of each game? Fire would have met fire.
Yet it isn't just an absence of personnel which has been an issue. An absence of leadership is apparent too.
We have had a fair bit of change to our team, with Saturday seeing three debutants arrive, to add to the new caps handed out to Stander earlier in the season. He has had an impressive campaign, and plenty of other Irish players have had their moments, too.
Yet at this level of sport, there is a thin dividing line between success and failure. We have performed well in all three games without quite finishing off the chances we have created.
And we remain a decent team - but it is as clear as day that we are in-between eras.
The golden generation has gone and the next generation - personified by the new caps who have played in this campaign - Stander, Ultan Dillane (who made a great impact on Saturday), Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier, have arrived.
We are standing on a bridge between the past and the future and after being spoiled for the best part of 15 years, we better to get used to the fact that we may not be winning Championships for a couple of years, because the thing about losing iconic figures is that they can't just be replaced.
A man can come in and wear the shirt. But can he deal with the expectation and pressure?
That is a different question and it is abundantly clear that we need the players who are there now to grow, to grab hold of this opportunity that has been presented to them, and make sure they don't wait for someone else to lead.
Toner is an obvious example. The big man had a decent game on Saturday. Between himself and Ryan, they put in a serious shift, knocking the English back with some big tackles, showing a willingness to get on the ball and have a go.
Yet, the fact is that he needs to back himself more. With O'Connell gone, he is in charge of calling the lineouts now, a new role for him and a tough one.
Surrounded by 80,000 people screaming and roaring, he is under pressure.
In the past, I remember O'Connell sharing the responsibility - probably because he didn't want to be seen as overly dominant - when really, there were times - and we said this to him - that if became selfish, he would actually be unselfish.
If the right thing for the team is for the lineout leader to call more throws on himself, to say, 'f**k this, it doesn't matter if George Kruis goes up with me, I'm good enough to win my own ball', then that is what Toner has to do.
Become selfish. Be more dominant. Suggest less movement at Ireland's line-outs. Less complication. Point out to people that he is 6'10", taller than everyone else. Back yourself.
That didn't happen enough on Saturday and, while the statistics show we lost only three of nine throws, it was three too many.
Deprived of quality possession off first-phase play, we never got the chance to maul as effectively as we could have - or provide Johnny Sexton with the space he craves.
All of which goes a long way to explaining why we lost a match we could have won. That and the fact we didn't finish off our chances - like the one Sexton created for Robbie Henshaw, or the one Dillane created for himself.
Each time support was needed. Each time it didn't arrive. Had it been there, had we executed better, we could have won.