Friday 18 August 2017

I was hopelessly wrong -- but false dawns are Irish speciality

Sean O'Brien is now crucial to Ireland's success and on Saturday we saw the first real attempts to orchestrate his power in the open. Photo: Getty Images
Sean O'Brien is now crucial to Ireland's success and on Saturday we saw the first real attempts to orchestrate his power in the open. Photo: Getty Images
George Hook

George Hook

Saturday was, to quote the music promoters, "a blast from the past" as Ireland discovered their verve and passion in a display of rugby that was full of old-fashioned values.

The callow underbelly of this English team was exposed as Brian O'Driscoll's men went about their task with courage and intent.

This was the worst England display seen in Lansdowne Road since 1972, when such was their lack of appetite for the contest that then-captain John Pullin was moved to say, "we may not be very good, but at least we turn up."

On Saturday I suggested that Ireland's 20th-century approach could not overcome England's modern game. I was hopelessly wrong. At times on Saturday the kick and chase by the Ireland forwards resembled more the Grand Slam of 1948 than the clean sweep 61 years later. It confounded and subjugated the men in white, and Ireland were on a front foot, which allowed the back line to function for the first time in 12 months.

Jonny Sexton was the obvious beneficiary, although Declan Kidney was quick to point out that who knows what Ronan O'Gara might have done had he started the game.

Kidney could well have included Luke Fitzgerald in his comments as Keith Earls was given an armchair ride and did not have to field one high kick from Toby Flood.

Ireland had the luxury of playing three wings at the back and Earls and Andrew Trimble merely confirmed what we already know, that they are the business going forward. Neither was really tested defensively.

England were tactically inept, nobody more so than their half-backs. They may have had little usable ball, but for Flood not to once kick it high against a neophyte full-back was testimony to the one-dimensional nature of Martin Johnson's game plan.

Similarly Ben Youngs showed all the immaturity of his 21 years and his needless push on Eoin Reddan was just a precursor for his yellow card, for stupidly throwing the ball away.

Like many a battle in history, a swap of generals could have produced a different result.

Perplexed

After the game, former internationals were perplexed to explain the result; the answer may, in fact, be simple. This was a very poor championship peopled by six ordinary teams. How else can one explain the performances of Ireland and France in Rome and England in Dublin? With a bit of luck, the Wooden Spoonists could have been runners-up.

It simply copper-fastens the view that the Webb Ellis Trophy will remain in the southern hemisphere.

Astonishingly, at the end of the championship, only France go to New Zealand certain of their starting fly-half. One suspects the same selection crisis does not exist with Quade Cooper, Dan Carter or Morne Steyn.

This match posed more questions than answers. Which was the real Ireland: against Italy, Scotland and Wales or England? The old cliché about one swallow and summer will remain until at least we see some consistency in the warm-up games.

What too about Kidney's bench policy? Paddy Wallace remains a ridiculous choice as cover and the coach's decision to take off the outstanding Mike Ross defied any logic. The result was that the previously powerful scrum imploded and within minutes, conceded a penalty.

The Leinster tight-head is now Ireland's most important player and it beggars belief that he was not considered in the autumn. No other player in contention dwarfs his replacement to the extent Ross does. An injury could consign Ireland to also-rans at the World Cup.

The Irish defence was watertight for two reasons. Firstly the management had studied the videos and prepared for Flood's attempts to bring players on the inside channels; secondly -- and much more importantly -- the double-teaming at the tackle succeeded in turning possible rucks into mauls and slowed possession.

The problem is that stronger and more aggressive teams will, as they have already demonstrated, negate that tactic.

The return of Stephen Ferris will pose a serious problem, which hopefully will not be solved by moving Sean O'Brien to open-side.

Balance is crucial to a back-row, and Ferris should either replace Donncha O'Callaghan in the second-row to speed up the pack or take Denis Leamy's place on the bench.

Either way, O'Brien is now crucial to Ireland's success and on Saturday we saw the first real attempts to orchestrate his power in the open. Like Ross, O'Brien has gone from anonymity to world class in five games. One wonders what other stars have been ignored by this management.

In two years, Ireland have won six of 10 games in the Championship. Good by the standards of yesteryear, but hardly indicative of the talent at the coach's disposal.

Saturday was a great day to be Irish and a company called Aviva, but false dawns are an Irish sporting speciality. A quarter-final place at the World Cup must be the very least of this team's ambition.

Stuart Barnes put it rather well when he opined: "Teams that have to be at their best to win against good teams will win nothing."

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