Monday 1 May 2017

Nobody to blame but themselves

George Hook

George Hook

Ireland lost in a heart-stopping finish yesterday at the Aviva, but, in truth, they were beaten by a better team that defended lazily all afternoon and gave the home side countless opportunities to get back into the game.

None more so than when Ronan O'Gara's penalty kick failed to find touch and the French, standing offside, gave him another shot at finding the touchline.

Ireland could have snatched another famous Declan Kidney victory if they had held the pass in the final surge. Kidney's teams specialise in rolling with the punches and coming back in the last round. They almost did it again courtesy of a typical piece of showboating by Sebastien Chabal, who tossed the ball to Ireland with a ridiculous basketball pass when the clock demanded that he keep possession.

Before the game, the anthems were ominous. For the first time in living memory the Irish were out-sung, and perhaps it said something about where we are as a nation that a pop song was sung with greater enthusiasm by an Irish crowd than the national anthem.

Happily, normal service was resumed after the kick-off and the team started with purpose. It was predicated by the Leinster axis in midfield and all our suspicions about French fragility were confirmed by Clement Poitrenaud's refusal to clear his lines, which led to a try and Damien Traille's restart.

BUTCHERED

Sadly, the first sign of the Irish error count arrived almost immediately when a clear overlap was butchered by a handling error. Predictably, Ireland lost the possession battle, but it was the errors that were fatal. Ireland made almost twice as many errors as their opponents. No team can aspire to success with that failure level. Ireland were flirting with a yellow card at every breakdown as French pressure negated Ireland's early superiority and the crowds were silenced.

Kidney's men were beaten up in the forward exchanges and after 20 minutes, France were forcing the game. Ireland gave away an inordinate amount of penalties and referee Dave Pearson could have issued a yellow card as Ireland tried to slow the ball at every ruck. It took 60 minutes, but the general warning finally arrived.

The best news of the afternoon was the performance of the Irish scrum. It was always under pressure but never capitulated as in the days of Tony Buckley and John Hayes.

The question was how the Irish management ignored for so long the claims of Mike Ross. The so-called experts on forward play from the southern hemisphere have failed Irish rugby.

Luke Fitzgerald never inspired confidence at full-back and the young man, like Keith Earls before him, is learning that international rugby needs a precision and control much greater than when they lorded it at underage level with a combination of speed and strength.

It was epitomised by Aurelien Rougerie's catch when the ball should have been claimed by the Irish full-back. Fitzgerald has none of Rob Kearney's power in the air and catching for a full-back is more important than running. No doubt Tom Kiernan and Hugo MacNeill amongst Irish full-backs of the past must have been astonished at the lack of basic skill.

Declan Kidney will justify the selection of Tomas O'Leary with his break for the first try and his individual effort for his own score. In truth, the scrum-half had an average game and his kicking was poor. However, as the pressure mounted up front, the speed and inventiveness of Eoin Reddan would have been nullified.

Inferior

The problem for the coach was that, as so often happens in French/Irish contests, at club and international level, our opponents carry greater power on the bench. Astonishingly, Cian Healy was taken off for a vastly inferior scrummager in Tom Court. The result was predictable and France won a penalty as the loose-head hit the deck. The only man on the bench with the ability to change the game was Ronan O'Gara and he duly arrived on the hour. The result was immediate as the Corkman rifled the ball to find an attacking position.

At that point, the match was France's to lose and they lost the resulting line-out to give Ireland an attacking position that, a few minutes before, seemed unlikely. Few teams could hold the ball for 25 phases, but the men in green showed tremendous patience, and luck was with them for Jamie Heaslip's try.

Ireland were beaten, but the post-match inquest may point not just to player error but to the coach's game plan. It was an hour before his team kicked the ball and the predictability will be read by opponents. The positives are the three tries, but no team can defeat a superior force by giving away penalties at all-too-regular intervals.

It looks all uphill from here to New Zealand in the autumn.

Irish Independent

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