Sport Comment & Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

George Hook: IRFU must go to school in bid to solve prop problems

Published 19/03/2012 | 09:40

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Ireland players after the humiliating defeat to England at Twickenham on Saturday

Dean Richards made his debut at Twickenham in 1986 and scored two tries from No 8 against an Ireland side that back-peddled 20 metres in the scrum.

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London Irish prop Paul Kennedy had a match to forget, but the now middle-aged rugby player has been joined by some of the worst scrummagers in Irish rugby history.

The big talk from inside the Irish squad this week was replaced by a whimper and the cosseted professionals got a lesson in the brutal realities of modern sport.

The disaster at Twickenham had been 10 years in the making. It was the logical result of a decade of shameful neglect of one of the fundamentals of rugby union. Even the hapless Scots and Italians have more than two prop forwards capable of playing at this level.

The Irish scrum problem has been evident for over 100 internationals but was ignored by the technical experts at the IRFU and the national and provincial coaches. The media, peopled by "fans with typewriters", were unwilling to rock the boat of the "golden generation" by asking difficult questions.

The Irish scrum has survived because the incidences of the set-piece at international level have been reduced to single figures. The conditions at Twickenham guaranteed that the number would double, with the attendant difficulty for the visiting team. It then became a case of -- as Muhammad Ali said of opponents -- "they can run, but they cannot hide."

Mike Ross departed to allow for the entry of Tom Court, whose ability to play at tight-head has been exposed at every level at which he has performed in his career. The situation that unfolded violated every tenet of health and safety.

As the debacle continued, I no longer cared about the result but simply hoped that Court would survive the game unscathed.

For the first time, I watched an international game where the prospect of a player being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life was a possibility. I wonder what the IRFU's insurers thought.

The Irish scrum was so bad that the ball was well-nigh uncontrollable at the back of the English pack. The penalty-try decision was correct as the entire Irish eight disappeared under pressure and provided no meaningful opposition. A try would probably have been scored had Ireland stayed bound. That is the premise behind the law.

EVIDENCE

Even before the scrum disintegrated, there was evidence that this England team had come to play and that the key areas of fly-half and back-row would be a real contest. Declan Kidney's hands may have been tied by the failure of his employers to give him competent prop forwards, but his conservatism was exposed for all to see and might of itself have delivered the same if less humiliating result.

The coach's irrational faith in Gordon D'Arcy lasted 45 minutes, and he was forced, in the most important game of the season, to use a backline with two fly-halves and put Jonathan Sexton in the unenviable position of learning centre play on the hoof.

If the Ronan O'Gara/Sexton combination was such a good idea then why not have tested it for 80 minutes against Italy or Scotland when D'Arcy had already shown that a fine career was at an end?

The back-row discussion has incorrectly focused on Sean O'Brien versus Peter O'Mahony for the openside shirt when, in fact, the glaring problem was the consistently inadequate performances of Jamie Heaslip.

The Irish No 8 was outplayed and, even allowing for the retreating scrum, his contribution was less than O'Brien and hugely less than Stephen Ferris, who at times seemed to be the only back-row in a green jersey. As the Irish scrum was humiliated, Heaslip, unlike the estimable Ben Morgan, seemed unwilling to lend his frame to the task.

Kidney's failure to believe the evidence of his own eyes is encapsulated in the performance of Donnacha Ryan. He was Ireland's best forward on Saturday yet he might never have got a start had Paul O'Connell remained fit. Donncha O'Callaghan, like Heaslip, has been living on a reputation of what lazy pundits call "a lot of unseen work''. Ryan's efforts were a lot more visible.

Both teams substituted their scrum-half with starkly contrasting results. From the off, England were under pressure as Lee Dickson dithered, delayed and kicked woefully. He was replaced by Ben Youngs and the quickening of the delivery had an immediate effect on Owen Farrell, who started to dominate the game in every facet.

Meanwhile, Eoin Reddan looked out of touch but the arrival of Tomas O'Leary made matters worse. O'Leary could never box-kick, but he chose an unfortunate time to give a masterclass of how not to do it. His passing was also slow and inaccurate and it showed that he needs time with a good coach to get back to any sort of form.

Fixing Ireland's scrum crisis will take longer than getting out from under the IMF. Prop forwards now at school must be identified, trained and coached; average back-rows of the right physique could have a whole new career by moving into the front-row; and the provinces must be stopped from importing foreign players in a short-term bid to win in Europe.

Therein lays the rub. If Ireland want to improve at international level then Heineken Cup prospects will suffer. Friday nights at the RDS may not attract crowds of 18,000 if Leinster are not on a winning streak. The men in blazers now face their greatest challenge. Their decision will determine the course of Irish rugby for years to come.

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