independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

David Kelly: Heaslip's frailties brutally exposed

Such a fitting scene for a sporting demise. Unremitting tears spilled appropriately upon the stony grey city of Edinburgh all afternoon as Brian O'Driscoll, still the uncrowned king of this Ireland team, abandoned all chance of claiming silverware in what is increasingly likely to be his final tour of duty in a green shirt.

And yet still, to the bitter and almost illogical end of such a larcenous victory for a very limited Scottish side, the captain in all but name was desperately dredging up every ounce of his revered character.

Sadly, even these attempts were sorely inadequate to lift a side who seemed frightened of their own shadows for much of this slow descent into awful defeat in a contest of irredeemably poor quality.

Nevertheless, it was his decision, not that of nominal captain Jamie Heaslip, to kick for the corner as the clock ticked down on what almost assuredly is an era-defining loss for Declan Kidney's Ireland team.

Ireland could not produce the defining score, undone by a slipshod error when Rob Kearney trundled into the body of Mike Ross, a fittingly slapstick ending to an 80-minute effort so often devoid of composure.

In O'Driscoll's decisive, if ultimately insignificant call, was writ large one of the many inescapable truths that have emerged during this championship; even if there are now a multiple in a team faltering in so many facets of play that they seem almost handicapped by fear.

That glaring truth is that the decision to replace O'Driscoll as captain has cruelly inhibited his successor, whose frailties in his own game and in his rampant indiscipline have undermined the great hopes of many who thought he could be a contender to lead the Lions.

But it has also inhibited the team.

That Chris Robshaw remains odds-on to lead that tour is not a surprise; but it's also not startling to discover that while O'Driscoll's odds have hardened as second favourite, Heaslip's have continued to disconsolately drift in the market.

It is indicative of the seemingly directionless drift upon which this Irish team is flowing.

"Another close game, another missed opportunity," muttered the captain, now immersed in a cycle of decline which has happened on his watch and for which he is shipping quite a disproportionate amount of blame.

Once again, his lack of personal control – another two key penalty concessions within a crucial five-minute second-half period maintains a familiar pattern of late – indicates that the burden of captaincy is akin to ferrying a boulder upon his shoulders.

On so many occasions during this game – a frightful advert for the international championship it has to be said – committee meetings occurred at breaks in play between a bevy of green jerseys.

With so little decisiveness from the nominated leader, how could there be certainty elsewhere?

With so many still respectfully doffing their cap at the long-time captain of this side, how can it be possible to acquiesce in a replacement who himself, as we have already averred, still steps aside to cede his own authority?

Since O'Driscoll's extraordinary opening 50 minutes or so against Wales in Cardiff, even he has been sucked into the realms of ill health that has afflicted both his new captain and the rest of the squad.

Daylight robbery, muttered a local, whose predominantly stoic nature meant that surprising victory here was hardly greeted with a Scottish jig, more a quizzical shrug of the shoulders.

But how could it be robbery when the burglar forgets to bring his swag bag, has no idea where the jewels are kept and then waits patiently in the house for the police to arrive?

Ireland did not lose this game in the final minute when Wayne Barnes tooted his last; they lost it in the opening half when they failed to take their opportunities and then after the break, when belatedly snaffling a chance, they somehow submerged themselves in needless panic.

"We took our opportunities and they didn't take theirs," said Scotland coach Scott Johnson, revelling in his role as comedic party pooper. "We showed strong character today but we have to be honest and say that wasn't perfect for us."

As an indictment of a winning team, this was damning his own with faint praise. And it made Ireland's dismal efforts to stem a hardly unstoppable tide all the more unflattering.

The win was humbling, reported Johnson, alighting on his team's strength of character.

Defeat for Ireland was humiliating, stripping them of their own supposedly renowned moral fibre as they slowly withered, frailties cropping up in almost every facet of their play. That there were so many potential scapegoats for the supporters to slate – line-out, scrum, creeping indiscipline at breakdown, tactics, goal-kicking, selection and replacements – indicates a wider malaise.

Ultimately, this may lead to the replacement of a coach who, it seems, cannot any more engender sufficient confidence from his players – has he any left in himself? – to close out an eminently winnable game.

Since O'Driscoll's Cardiff try, Ireland have scored just 14 points in more than three and a quarter hours of rugby, an astonishingly poor return compounded still further by the knowledge that they have created a surfeit of opportunities to put more on the board.

Scoreboard pressure, as Johnson pointed out accurately, does funny things to a team. And this Irish team that can no longer carp, as they monotonously continue to do, that creating opportunities should be a source from which to derive pleasure.

Ireland dominated the numbers game to an embarrassing degree for a losing side. Possession – 71pc. Territory – 77pc. 124 carries to 35. 310 metres made as opposed to 110. Four line-breaks, all try-scoring chances, to nil. A third of the side were unencumbered by having to make a tackle of any description in the first half, and they were forced to make just 55 in all.

And still, somehow, they conspired to lose when everything, bar their own crippling self-doubt, poised them on the precipice of victory. The more they applied pressure without return, the more that pressure was forced inward. Ultimately, they imploded.

It is this utter impotence which now reflects a more truthful picture of the state of this international team, whose second halves have on the successive occasions featured craven and chaotic submission, riddled with indecisive leadership and poor tactics.

"Mind-boggling," was how Rob Kearney accurately described this latest in an all too depressingly familiar tale of missed opportunities.

But, as Kearney manfully admitted yesterday, the hard questions that have already been probed in these pages throughout many months of inconsistency in tactics and selection now echo more tremorously than ever before.

To his credit, the man who fronted up to the media when the last coach's career ended in Twickenham five years ago didn't evade the debate now swirling with more violent energy than at any time in this squad's tenure under Kidney.

"There's no hiding from that," he admitted when pressed on the external pressures now rubbing like tectonic plates against the internal pressures on a side who are slowly losing their self-assurance.

"Coaches are under pressure, players are under pressure, everyone has to bear the brunt of that.

"Today was a game we should have won and we didn't. So questions have to be asked, that's the nature of the game, that's how it goes. But there are positives; there is a lot we can take from that. France too, they're going to be a wounded animal as well."

That promises to be a grim encounter.

Two teams ferrying uncertain captains, hobbled by their own inner demons in terms of form, playing under coaches who themselves cannot impose consistent authority.

The French coined the term fin de siècle. Next month is beginning to have a similarly eerie feeling.

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