George Hook: Coach's caution makes Scots a worry
Published 18/02/2013 | 04:00
When the final whistle blew in Cardiff, euphoria walked the land. Excessive optimism, a native Irish trait, was already planning Grand Slam parties in Rome, despite the fact that this team has rarely put back-to-back performances together. The second half against Wales was completely ignored when the pack were bullied and the home side dominated the possession and territory statistics. A combination of stout Irish defence and poor Welsh decision-making prevented six tries in the second half.
The real Irish team was exposed by England in the Aviva and the visit to Scotland is now fraught with difficulty. Five of last week's team are doubtful starters and that, added to the injury list before the championship started, means that next Saturday may well see the weakest professional Irish team to start in the Six Nations.
Jonathan Sexton is a huge loss. His robust tackling was at the core of the Irish defence in Cardiff even if his kicking strategies left a lot to be desired. Last week the arrival of Ronan O'Gara was accepted by many as giving the team the possibility of pinning back England with kicks to the corner that might turn the English back three. The substitute fly-half was less than certain behind a beaten pack and pressurised by a fast-closing English defence.
The really worrying feature is that O'Gara does not look the player of just a few months ago. One could understand how, with little game time under his belt, he would have found it difficult to adjust to the speed of an international, but on Saturday against the Scarlets not only did he fail to impress with his line kicking but he missed two sitters in front of the posts. Perhaps for the first time in his life he is beginning to doubt his infallibility. Ireland expects and needs a performance of quality from its No 10.
Declan Kidney has no choice in the pivotal position but he does have a choice as to the bench and the centre position vacated by Gordon D'Arcy. If the coach stays true to his innate conservatism, then Ian Madigan will not be in the match 23. The Leinster player is an outstanding young talent and should be the back-up No 10. Like Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson, he is an average tactical kicker and probably inferior to his to competitors as a place-kicker. If Ireland want to beat an average Scotland team, they must be able to attack with the ball in hand.
Kidney will probably select Keith Earls in the centre and move Brian O'Driscoll to number 12. It says something about the Irish management that after 36 caps the Young Munster player's inability to pass has been ignored. Furthermore, moving O'Driscoll to inside centre places extra physical demands on a body that is obviously creaking at the seams.
O'Driscoll's injured ankle is clearly not 100pc and one can only guess at the state of some other parts of his body. The No 12 is required to make more tackles, carry the ball into contact and face bigger runners from the breakdown. Why put the team's match-winner in that position?
Luke Marshall suffered a dead leg against Zebre on Friday night, but if fit would be the best choice for Ireland. Failing that, Fergus McFadden should get the shirt.
Scotland have a good back three, a solid scrum and a secure line-out. They do not have an international quality midfield. Were it not for unbelievable generosity by Italy, the result in Murrayfield could easily have gone the other way. This is the same average Scotland we have watched for a number of years and should not strike fear into even a weakened Ireland team.
This team may have a captain, but it does not have a leader. Jamie Heaslip's personal performance has dipped since his appointment. Against England, his inability to make simple catches and his failure twice to stay on the right side of the referee cost his team six points. His predecessor was not a great captain but was an outstanding leader. O'Driscoll ticked all the boxes of leadership by never asking anybody to do something that he was not prepared to do himself; by being the outstanding player; and by putting his body on the line in every game.
I have not met a single former international that considers Heaslip to embody the characteristics of an Irish captain. Kidney's rush to judgment on O'Driscoll may backfire in this tournament.
That said, the great man may be pushing his body beyond where common sense dictates. As a husband and a father, he also has responsibility to giving his body a chance to function satisfactorily in his later years.
Ireland's tactics will be determined by the fact that the team is playing for the coach's professional life. Almost certainly then we will see a conservative game plan based on keeping the score down rather than cutting loose.
For many, three wins from five outings would be an acceptable return this year. The remaining fixtures now look like serious hurdles for a team that is short on leadership, riven by injury and with a pack unable to impose itself on opponents
Should Ireland get past Scotland, they could face a revitalised France in Dublin and go to Rome to face an Italian side that, so far this season, is playing better than at any time in its history. The team announcement will be the first test of the coach's resolve. If Kidney gets that wrong, his team could be embarrassed next weekend.