George Hook: Careless kicking put Ireland on a hiding to nothing
Published 11/02/2013 | 04:00
The disappointment in the ground was palpable as Ireland went down to England in a sodden Aviva Stadium by four penalties to two. It was a game out of the 1950s, a collision devoid of movement.
For the first time in 50 years, I went to bed before an Irish international game and prayed for a dry sod. It was indicative of the style espoused by current teams that they rely on passing and running rather than a bit of luck, the roar of the crowd and an aerial onslaught from the fly-half.
Ireland lost because, for the second week in a row, they kicked the ball away with careless abandon. Craig Gilroy may be an exciting talent, but he needs to think when he has the ball in his hand inside the '22'. The English targeted the young wing and forced Rob Kearney on to his right foot, where he had to run rather than put in a siege-gun clearance.
As badly as Ireland kicked, their chase was even worse. Time and again, the England back three fielded kicks under no pressure and had time to run back at Ireland. It was an eerie replay of the second half against Wales.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night, club sides in Ireland practise the kick/chase. The lessons of Cardiff were not learnt.
The big question was whether Jonathan Sexton had the kicking game to trouble England. The match was always going to hinge on the respective kicking games of the two teams.
The first 20 minutes was notable for Ireland's inability to kick with any purpose. Sexton did nothing to put his opponents under pressure, once even kicking to nowhere with an overlap waiting outside.
The accepted wisdom was that Ireland needed to start well, to serve notice that they were ready to deliver a fire and brimstone performance. Owen Farrell started the match deep and Conor Murray immediately gave the ball back and put pressure on his team.
Ireland had just gained a foothold in the English '22' and Jamie Heaslip knocked on to reprise the effort of his scrum-half. The captain did not lead from the front when his team needed impetus.
Ireland's hopes of a dynamic performance were hampered by the high level of handling errors. It must have been part of the dressing-room chat to retain possession, but Ireland gave the visitors a comfortable welcome to Dublin.
The Irish scrum survived in the first half because Cian Healy spent the match scrummaging illegally and dropped the scrum to prevent an English drive. The loosehead is unlikely to play against Scotland or indeed for the rest of the championship after a disgraceful episode when stamping on a prone opponent.
The restart saw a dramatic change in Irish fortunes. The scrum improved, Ireland got some possession and the arrival of Ronan O'Gara gave the Irish kicking game more control. The substitute No 10 has his detractors, but he demonstrated yet again his mental strength.
No other team in the championship has a reserve of such quality in this crucial area.
Despite the advantage of an extra man after the yellow card picked up by James Haskell, Ireland lost that period by 6-3. The England defence was supremely comfortable against the Irish midfield and the hosts did not have a strategy, other than the maul, which worked.
It was all the more surprising then when, in the 69th minute, Ireland went for a kick at goal. They could have kicked to the corner and trusted the maul to gain seven points and the lead. O'Gara missed the kick and, surprisingly, a few minutes later, Farrell did the same.
It left Ireland with a mountain to climb in the last 10 minutes and the England defence never wavered.
Declan Kidney made two astonishing substitutions. With just 90 seconds left on the clock, the coach brought Declan Fitzpatrick on for Mike Ross, immediately placing at risk the possibility of winning a vital attacking scrum should it occur.
Similarly, Sean Cronin predictably threw badly for the last-ditch line-out and with that went Ireland's hopes.
Ireland did not play badly; they were simply beaten by a better team that handled the conditions with confidence. Ireland's error count was too high in the first half, which left them behind at the break against a team with a superior bench.
England also produced the only clear-cut chances for tries. Twice Manu Tuilagi failed to score when it seemed the harder option to err rather than get the job done.
The remaining three games in this Six Nations championship have taken on a more difficult hue for Kidney's men now, with injuries to key players and the almost certain suspension of Healy.
The latest crop of crocked players added to the absence of Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe will place a severe strain on resources.