Sunday 26 February 2017

Hugh Farrelly: Is a defence coach the best form of attack?

Hugh Farrelly

THE question is straightforward and, after the dispiriting loss to Wales, extremely relevant: "Has Les Kiss got too much on his plate?"

This is not hindsight asking. In the build-up to Sunday's clash the point was made repeatedly that if Ireland were to lose to the Welsh for a third time in succession, the decision not to bring in a specialist attack coach to replace Alan Gaffney would be a stick to beat them with.

And so it has proved. Kiss' dual role raised eyebrows among the Welsh afterwards and the point was made that the defence and attack roles in the modern game are so significant and so specific that they require individual attention.

It has to be hard for Kiss to switch between negative (no tries) and positive (as many tries as possible) mindsets, pursuing diametric opposite objectives. That situation invites fuzzy thinking and there was fuzziness aplenty in Ireland's display on Sunday.

The most unsettling aspect to the defensive showing was the uncharacteristic passivity, as Paul O'Connell acknowledged.

"Whatever about conceding scores, we are conceding a lot of ground, a lot of yardage," said the Ireland captain afterwards.

He was not wrong. The Welsh ran out in Dublin with one of the largest three-quarter lines ever assembled, and the key to stopping them was to get in their faces. Ireland's backs may not have been as tall or as bulky but they are all good tacklers, well used to felling bigger men.

However, rather than rushing to close down space or employing the 'shooter' system, the Irish seemed to invite the Welsh on to their line and their opponents earned metres and momentum as a result -- notably when working their way down the field to set up the winning score at the death.

Kiss is an excellent and innovative defence coach and his work in this area was the foundation of Ireland's Grand Slam success three years ago. Employing what became known as the 'trust' system, there was a period in 2009/10 when the Irish defence was one of the most miserly in world rugby.

Kiss also introduced the famous 'choke' tackle, a clever way of engineering turnovers which was swiftly adopted by other nations after its successful implementation in the wins over England and Australia last year.

However, all the defensive assurance that characterised those wins and the World Cup pool defeat of Italy has evaporated, and the three Welsh tries last weekend were all preventable.

In attack, there were flashes of the promised added nuances revolving around extra options on the ball, and the tries for Rory Best and Tommy Bowe were well conceived and executed.

However, with the line-out so dominant, you expected to see more pre-planned attacks off quality possession and, overall, there were too many echoes of the quarter-final defeat in Wellington when Irish runners were lined up and mowed down.

Paris is a hard place to put things right. The French (when they were bothered) showed what they are capable of in attack against Italy and in Wesley Fofana, Aurelien Rougerie, Vincent Clerc and Julien Malzieu, they have some of the most dangerous runners in the game.

Aggression

Furthermore, their defence had all the aggression that Ireland's lacked and Kiss' double task of plotting a way over the French line while simultaneously keeping them from crossing Ireland's looks daunting in the extreme.

There is a need for single-minded focus and a dedicated voice in attack and one name that jumps out is Leinster coach Joe Schmidt. It may be short notice but Schmidt has done remarkable work with the province's attack and, with many of the same players in the Ireland backline, it would merely be a case of same again, Joe.

Of course, there are logistical impediments -- Leinster have a Pro12 campaign to pursue and there is also the issue of Schmidt, who many consider an Ireland coach in waiting, being seen as undermining Declan Kidney.

But that is not Schmidt's style. He has spoken wistfully about missing his days as assistant coach with Clermont, and he is not the sort to instigate a power grab. In terms of seconding him from Leinster, it would be hard on the province (who are already loaning out scrum coach Greg Feek to Ireland) and an extra workload for Schmidt but the IRFU are the overlords and even if it were only for a few sessions here and there, the benefits could be profound.

It would also allow Kiss to focus on what he does best -- organising shut-outs -- because, as it stands, the talented Australian is neither fish nor fowl.

Irish Independent

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