independent

Friday 18 April 2014

David Kelly: Where's the plan?

Three years ago, Ireland won a Grand Slam with an effective formula for success. But after their third consecutive defeat to Wales, David Kelly asks...

Jonathan Sexton endured a frustrating day in Ireland's defeat against Wales on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

When Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009, the ingredients appeared to be relatively simple.

A mixture of defiant defence -- three tries leaked in five games -- stout cohesion in the forwards and a canny knack of converting pressure into points through powerful game-breakers or close-in rumbles ushered them home in fine, if not glamorous, style.

Three years on, Ireland's defence is leaking tries at an alarming rate, a factor compounded by an absence of the match-winning ability of '09 to snaffle chances at decisive moments.

And Ireland's quest for a definitive style of play appears to be a frustratingly fruitless endeavour, as evidenced by the grumbles of so many Irish supporters on Sunday night.

Following on from a World Cup disappointment now compounded by the recidivist nature of a third consecutive defeat against the Welsh -- a clear sign of a lack of progress -- where do Ireland go from here?

The clarion call to reshape the team and promote youth has merits, until one considers that Declan Kidney's primary job detail is to engineer a top-three finish in the Six Nations and achieving that with a second successive defeat would seem improbable.

Kidney would not have planned for egregious errors from some of his star players on Sunday but he is in charge of overseeing a collective who appear not be operating at the peak of their powers.

More worryingly, they appear not to have a discernible style or tactical approach and, although the link between Heineken Cup rugby and international rugby is arguably spurious, at least the provinces have a definable pattern of play.

But then, perhaps all is not lost. Speaking to Newstalk's 'Off The Ball' last night, Gordon D'Arcy refuted the claims of many witnesses that all is not well with this Ireland team.

"I don't think the better team won," he stated. "We showed what we are about as an attacking team for 90pc of that game, maybe we were a bit inaccurate at the breakdown. We left two or three tries out there. We're talking about 3pc or 4pc at the ruck.

"I think we deserved the win. We played a lot of rugby. We defended very well. Wales played that wide game and we shut them down for large parts of the game.

"We showed great maturity until 78 minutes. We kicked right, chased well, played tactically well, attacked well and from depth. We did all the things we wanted to do well."

Nothing to see here, then? Irish supporters who tweeted their disdain of these comments -- "he must have been watching a different game to me," said one -- would indicate otherwise. Neither can Ireland hope that fire and brimstone and "answering their critics" can solve the underlying cracks in the system. Ireland's recent history is littered with such grandiose one-off statements. What Ireland need now is more solid foundations.

Tactics

Ireland's tactics were easily discernible when they were at their most successful during the Grand Slam season. As they plummet down the world rankings -- now eighth -- and lurch inconsistently from game to game, there is no evident game plan, at least not one that is consistently deployed for any reasonable length of time.

Defence

If Ireland repeat Sunday's defensive performance, they are doomed against France, although it may suffice against feeble attacking units such as Italy and Scotland, for whom try-scoring is a rarely accomplished feat.

Much has been made of the disparity in power between the respective backlines. However, this was compounded by the bizarrely one-paced line speed that allowed the Welsh man-mountains extra space from which to launch. Allowing the French as much room next Saturday will be suicidal.

Tackling

Although the stats would indicate this was a good day at the office for the tacklers -- with the back five rising above 60 in their numbers -- appalling individual attempts, often made worse by the passive defensive system, undermined Ireland.

Paul O'Connell (left), despite 17 tackles, held his hand up for the missed effort on Ian Evans that led to Wales' oxygen-inducing try in the death throes. But Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe and D'Arcy were just three experienced campaigners whose tackling attempts were inept. Schoolchildren are taught to tackle low but some of the Irish attempts were risibly high. Closing space will help, but so will brushing up on technique.

Attack

After the return of Alan Gaffney to Australia, many supporters anticipated a radical reshuffle in attacking priorities, given that there had been widespread disdain at recent efforts to expand Ireland's attack.

The early evidence is not particularly encouraging and with Les Kiss and Mark Tainton having witnessed a below-par defensive and kicking display -- the duo's respective primary responsibilities -- have they enough time? When Ireland attacked with intensity and fervour, they did manage to make some inroads and, ironically, France's own passive defence will allow Ireland the space to play some ball.

Kicking

Many of the kicking options were utterly bizarre -- with little opportunity of retrieving possession, Ireland repeatedly kicked down the middle.

In contrast, Wales only kicked to retain possession; only Rob Kearney prevented them from doing so. Ireland's box-kicking was poor and Jonny Sexton wasn't consistent either, missing an early touch.

However, it is difficult to know whether Ireland's kicking tactics are imposed or co-ordinated in battle -- either way, the efforts are counter-productive.

Back-row balance

This is an issue that is not going to disappear overnight -- nor is it going to be solved immediately. It's Groundhog Day. Or not, as the case may be. Ireland's reluctance to adopt a roaming and fetching No 7 in international rugby pre-dates Kidney's management and has until recently mostly been predicated upon the enduring, decade-long excellence of Messrs Brian O'Driscoll and D'Arcy.

Gert Smal must assume responsibility here and assign one of his undroppable back-row trio to become commander-in-chief at ruck time; Peter O'Mahony is not the answer and history does not kindly record the debuts of back-rowers in Paris.

Selection

The theme of Ireland's current state of stasis -- where the squad are not collectively delivering upon their individual prowess -- makes it illogical to discuss wholesale changes, although some appear inevitable.

On form, D'Arcy and Donncha O'Callaghan look set for the chop and the welcome return of Keith Earls on the wing will allow Kidney the chance to harden up his soft centres by picking Fergus McFadden and Tommy Bowe.

With the Sexton-Murray partnership clearly not working, the Leinster man needs to be re-acquainted with his provincial partner Eoin Reddan. Expect changes to be minimal. A change in mindset is more important.

Leadership

What has happened to the leadership that so defined Ireland's Grand Slam exploits? It is not all about O'Driscoll's absence, because the leadership qualities of both Munster and Leinster players have accompanied four Heineken Cup wins in the last six years.

Regardless of who decided that Sexton kick for goal in the 73rd minute, the choice was ill-judged. Would Munster or Leinster have stared such a gift horse in the mouth, leading against 14 men with seven minutes remaining?

Composure

In a related point, Ireland's lack of composure when in possession was compounded by the fact that when they did retain possession, instead of needlessly kicking it away, they looked reasonably dangerous.

Ireland will need to consistently make the right decisions against France but, once more, this is reliant upon the players buying into a productive, coherent game plan.

Use of replacements

Kidney is not the first coach to express his undying faith in all 22 players chosen for his match-day squad and then have events undermine such platitudes. Replacing the half-backs with just minutes remaining on Sunday seemed nonsensical and it is difficult to quantify the mixed messages being sent to his players by doing so.

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