independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Hugh Farrelly: Scrum farce symptom of wider failing

ANYONE with a vested interest in Irish rugby who is still against the IRFU's player succession strategy should take a long look at the video of this demoralising St Patrick's Day massacre at Twickenham.

And then watch it again.

Ireland were poor in a host of areas in what was the worst performance of the Declan Kidney reign, but this defeat started and ended with the scrum.

During the week, Dean Richards spoke to the Irish Independent about his debut in this fixture when he scored two pushover tries and not since that day in 1986 has the Irish scrum been emasculated to this extent.

As soon as Mike Ross picked up his early neck/shoulder injury, Ireland's scrum was feeling the heat and, though they managed to hold things together until half-time when they went in trailing only 9-6, the second half witnessed a complete collapse.

Nine penalties stemmed directly from England's superiority in this area and, while they racked up the points -- including a penalty try -- and drew physical and psychological strength from this overwhelming dominance, the Irish wilted and wavered, beaten long before Nigel Owens put them out of their misery.

Ireland's dependence on the well-being of Ross is no secret, but the extent of that dependence was shocking to behold as the unfortunate Tom Court, who replaced the Leinster tight-head after only 35 minutes, was filleted by the English front- row.

Unfortunate because Court does not play regularly in the position for Ulster where New Zealand's John Afoa holds down the No 3 jersey.

Court is a decent loose-head, but tight-head is the issue and Afoa in Ulster and Springbok BJ Botha in Munster may be essential to the progress of their respective provinces, but they are a hindrance to the Ireland team.

Saturday highlighted the muddled priorities in the Irish game where the Heineken Cup appears to be revered above all else and the national side suffers the consequences.

Wales wrapped up their third Grand Slam since 2005 and, with a World Cup run that should have taken them to the final, can justifiably claim to be Europe's best rugby nation during that period.

They have won no Heineken Cups, pre or post 2005, while Ireland have picked up four since 2006, but does this bother the Welsh? The celebrations in Cardiff and throughout the country would suggest otherwise.

Ronan O'Gara said it in Queenstown last September -- failing at the World Cup and returning home to win another European title is not good enough -- only "a consolation," as he put it.

And that is the truth. Leinster, Munster or Ulster could go on to claim the trophy in May and it would be wonderful and exciting and invigorating -- but until that competition can be used to bring similar success at national level, it is irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things.

Ireland ground out a Grand Slam in 2009, but have been unable to achieve any consistency since. They remain the only established rugby nation (including Argentina) never to have made it to a World Cup semi-final and on Saturday were obliterated by a unified, but distinctly average England side. That is unacceptable.

The IRFU policy, flawed as it is in certain areas, is a step in the right direction and Irish rugby in general needs to wake up to the fact that overseas players are hurting the national cause.

Stating as much, as has been done here consistently over the past number of years, leads to accusations of xenophobia, but the evidence is irrefutable. Ross would have been established in the Ireland side sooner had he not been forced to warm the bench for a season at Leinster behind Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde.

Overseas players may be romanticised in Ireland, but they are not here out of a desire to see Ireland or for a love of the game, they are here for money.

issues

With far more clubs to choose from, England do not have the same issues to negotiate and were able to completely revamp their squad after their World Cup disappointment.

Stuart Lancaster, his fellow coaches and players deserve huge credit for an excellent campaign that yielded four wins from five and surely the permanent job for their interim coach.

The introduction of new players brought a freshness to their side and allowed England to move on from their World Cup disappointment. Ireland, although with less opportunity for change, have been unable to do the same.

Kidney took a calculated gamble of trusting in the same group of players to get through an exacting schedule and, if Ross had not sustained his injury so soon, may have managed it.

This result was always going to be the arbiter of that selection policy and two wins against the weakest sides in the competition and Ireland's worst finish since Eddie O'Sullivan's final campaign in 2008 mean he would have been as well off looking at a few fresh options.

It has been a hard slog and does not get any easier, harder in fact as Ireland must now steel themselves for three Tests in New Zealand against the World champions.

They will hope to have forwards coach Gert Smal, whose illness appears to have been far more serious than originally thought, back in tow and Kidney is optimistic that they will.

New Zealand is not the best place to blood new players, but at least one needs to be found quickly because this level of vulnerability at scrum-time makes progress impossible.

Jamie Hagan is the best bet. He has been short on game time since returning to Leinster, but has picked up in this regard since the new year and needs to alternate with Ross ahead of Connacht-bound Kiwi Nathan White for the rest of the season.

This is a microcosm of the bigger picture facing Irish rugby and the focus switching to indigenous talent cannot come soon enough.

It is back to the provinces now and the 'excitement' of the Heineken Cup, but, regardless of another European title being annexed, Ireland's 2011/12 season will be remembered for the national team's failure to match talent to achievement during the World Cup and Six Nations. Provincial success is just a consolation, and a poor one at that.

If you doubt as much, take a look at the tape.

ENGLAND -- B Foden (M Brown 76); C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, L Dickson (B Youngs 48); A Corbisiero, D Hartley (L Mears 76), D Cole; M Botha, G Parling; T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan (P Dowson 77).

Ireland -- R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 49), A Trimble (F McFadden 75); J Sexton, E Reddan (T O'Leary 49); C Healy, R Best (capt), M Ross (T Court 37); D O'Callaghan (M McCarthy 66), D Ryan; S Ferris, S O'Brien (P O'Mahony 70), J Heaslip.

REF -- N Owens (Wales).

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