Thursday 30 October 2014

Sobering defeat is proof new breed still has some way to go

Published 12/02/2013 | 04:00

Donnacha Ryan is tackled by England's Joe Marler and James Haskell

Declan Kidney is faced with two weeks of problem-solving as he plots a game plan to defeat Scotland at Murrayfield to revive Ireland's hopes of success in the Six Nations Championship.

The problems are many and varied for he must prepare replacements for some of his injured warriors, devise tactics to counter a stubborn and defiant Scotland and address tactical problems that have compromised Ireland in their most recent matches against Wales and England.

Ireland's experiences against England proved that the optimism engendered by the manner of their victory over Wales was exaggerated. A sober reflection of Sunday's outing gives rise to the belief that the evolution of this "new generation" Ireland has some way to go yet.

It is as well to remember, however, that an overly positive view after the Millennium Stadium should not be replaced by an exaggerated negative reaction to this latest loss.

Certainly Ireland's performance was very disappointing and left much to be desired.

But it should not be forgotten that Ireland were within a converted try of winning a match they had absolutely no right to be in the mix for after their performance. Ireland were physically beaten up, were outfought, out-thought, outmuscled – with the honourable exceptions of Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien – and outscored.

cheerful

And yet they were still within touching distance of England at the end. It is not being blindly cheerful but, as Declan Kidney said after Sunday's game, there is still reason to be cautiously positive. The Grand Slam bid lies in tatters, the quest for the Championship is still alive.

Ireland play Scotland, France and Italy in their remaining Championship games. All three are winnable, although having to do so without a plethora of first-team regulars does increase the difficulty factor.

Had Ireland beaten England they would have been installed as favourites for both the Championship and the Grand Slam. Declan Kidney would have his contract until the 2015 Rugby World Cup secured, with it a top-class coaching team would also be protected and this emerging Ireland team would be further along the evolutionary road.

Sunday's loss has thrown everything into disarray. If the credit the coaches received for the magnificent victories over Argentina and Wales are to carry any weight then they must be held culpable for Ireland's ineffective and wholly predictable attacking game on Sunday.

The Ireland coaching team were out-thought by Stuart Lancaster and his lieutenants. Ireland lost because they failed to adapt their template game plan when it was obvious from early in the game that England were superbly prepared to counter it perfectly. Ireland were never able to surprise them in any element of play.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has made huge progress with what is an average enough amalgam of players. They are a team devoid of originality and seek to wear teams down by living off scraps and punishing mistakes. And, above all else, they work really hard, especially when they don't have the ball, which is hugely commendable.

Lancaster doesn't trust creative players and clearly covets dogma and industry above imagination. Why else did he opt to leave Manu Tuilagi on the bench in preference to the defensive-minded duo of Twelvetrees and Barritt?

England conceded more penalties than Ireland. But of the 14 penalties they gave away only three of them were within kicking range. Ireland gave away 11 penalties, six of them were in range and Farrell converted four of those six.

This was England being more clever than Ireland. England's tactics were spot on. Ireland's were not and they seemed incapable of changing.

It was flagged up well in advance that Ireland's almost patented 'choke-tackle' would not work against England because it would play to their strengths – and yet Ireland slavishly persisted with that tactic for the duration.

Redemption is what is needed now. And they must seek that with a team held together by sticky tape, band-aids and chewing gum judging by the mounting injury list. That Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe were already ruled out was a potentially fatal blow. Add to that list the names of Jonathan Sexton and Simon Zebo with the possibility of more to come in the days ahead.

If Ireland are to salvage their season and the coaching staff their positions beyond this year's Six Nations Championship, they need to win all three remaining games, irrespective of whether or not they secure the Championship title.

And he will have to hand the reins for the start of the revival, at the very least, to Ronan O'Gara.

In Sexton's absence, O'Gara will start his first game for Ireland since the 2011 World Cup quarter-final loss to Wales in New Zealand.

There are no credible alternatives to the 127-times capped Munster player and this is a huge opportunity for him. Paddy Jackson must also now look upon the visit to Scotland as an opportunity for he will surely be brought in to the bench as cover for O'Gara.

O'Gara's last start was for Munster in their Heineken Cup game against Edinburgh a month ago and since then he has just one substitute appearance – last weekend against England. He will benefit from running the line in training all next week and, as Rob Kearney said, Ireland are fortunate to have a player of his experience to take over the reins.

Similarly, while not wishing to pre-empt tomorrow's disciplinary hearing in London, the likelihood is that Dave Kilcoyne will start his first senior international at loosehead prop. Tom Court will be called in as bench cover for the first time since the Twickenham horror show 12 months ago.

And Luke Fitzgerald will also benefit. It is, presuming Brian O'Driscoll's ankle scan reveals no serious damage, a straight decision between Fitzgerald and Keith Earls for the left wing spot in Zebo's absence. Fitzgerald might just benefit, ironically enough, because Earls is the perfect 23rd man as he offers cover right across the backline.

There will also have to be further changes in the pack with Mike McCarthy likely to be ruled out with a medial ligament strain. Fortunately, Donncha O'Callaghan has been in magnificent form for Munster this season and he will relish what is now a rare start in an Irish jersey. The problem now, though, is where to find second-row cover for the bench?

Devin Toner certainly offers an option out of touch because of his height, but can Ireland afford the luxury of having a reserve second-row who will offer little outside of his undoubted advantage at line-out time?

emerging

The lack of emerging international standard second rows in all provinces has long been an issue that has seemingly gone unchecked.

If McCarthy is ruled out for the Scotland game, it will surely bring the matter to the forefront of discussions, which, of course, does neither Ireland nor Kidney any good at this stage.

Ireland's loss at the weekend shows how fickle public support can be. Kidney's stewardship has been under critical examination for the past number of months and the IRFU will consider the consequences of a blow-out season for Ireland as well as the winds of public debate when planning for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Kidney's task is not an easy one and is aggravated by the mounting list of injuries to so many key performers. He has been trying to orchestrate a smooth transition from a distinguished group of mature players to a younger and more vigorous squad.

And he has been making progress. The victories over Argentina and Wales proved that.

It is ironic therefore that he is likely to have to revert to those who won't be around for the 2015 World Cup to facilitate his being there.

Funny that. Not 'ha ha' funny ... but funny all the same!

Irish Independent

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