Tuesday 19 September 2017

The team that has forgotten how to win

David Kelly

David Kelly

From rags to riches. The sodden and soiled towels of the ball boys hang desultorily around our heads.

A season of immense promise now wretchedly wrecked by confusion upon contusion.

We are standing around the dressing-room within the bowels of Lansdowne Road, which doubles as a media facility, waiting to be apprised of the legacy of this, Ireland's fourth successive second-half submission of this campaign.

Conor Murray, whose immense performance prompted much furrowing of brows when he was withdrawn so prematurely, dovetailing as it did with Ireland's latest puzzling decline, is precise in his summation.

"Overall the championship is probably a little disappointing," he reports, dolefully. Sadly, and even though the alternative is either unpalatable or unattainable, the nature of such a fitful campaign means inevitably it will also be this coaching ticket's final fling.

There were, apparently, some dove-like figures hinting that a glorious victory against the French might have allowed Declan Kidney and co a glimmer of hope to survive; another appalling second-half collapse utterly undermines that thesis this morning.

It also raises important questions of squad depth, with the entire front-row finishing in their position, a stunning rarity in the modern game, despite the fact that a weakening scrum turned the game decisively in France's favour when they belatedly bothered to offer something to the contest.

Ovations

Throughout, a diffident audience seemed unaware that this Ireland team and coach required their support; astonishingly, people were decamping to beat traffic and missed both ovations to this, or any era's, greatest ever rugby player.

The crowd's startling declining interest in proceedings mirrored Ireland's drift; scoreless since the 32nd minute, this game followed a hopelessly predictable pattern of unpredictability that has seen the team brimful of early pace before sagging and lagging wearily and drearily.

"In the first half, I felt we were in a good place, we were controlling the game well, playing in the right areas," reports Murray.

"We just needed to tick the scoreboard over maybe once or twice in the second half, maybe it could have been a different story. We have to look at our second halves this year, they haven't been quite up to scratch.

"We've felt comfortable in games and then came out and not scored in a couple of games, which has probably killed us. It isn't good enough, not to score after 32 minutes. We had a free-kick in the second half and we got to within 10 metres of their line, but then ended up back in our own 22, which isn't good enough from our point of view.

"We need to be putting away chances like that. We have a game plan and a system that if we do get inside their green zone, we need to be coming away with points. It's just not good enough from us in the second half."

Getting the message? Not good enough. Once more, though, there were encouraging signs amid the collective disappointment; the cohesion and clarity displayed for 55 minutes, before some reckless offloading and mental lapses seeped through, indicated a unity of approach for once.

Key players performed well, especially those in need of strong displays. In many ways, this was a performance whose genesis was desperation more than design.

The tactics that flourished for an hour were limited but brilliantly effective in the driving rain – shortened and sharp line-outs, intelligent kicking and powerful mauling. The abandonment of said tactics was peculiar.

And so somehow the wheels fell off once more even if, in mitigation, it is getting harder and harder to stem the visits to casualty. The cast of a seeming thousand ex-pros doing media work in the stands may get a recall yet.

None of us can understand it, least of all the coach, whose job it is to do so. Murray cannot fathom it either.

"You can't put your finger on it. We don't go to sleep, we don't stop playing. It's hard to pinpoint. It's not a one-liner.

"It's not confidence. People asked us all week was the confidence low but it's not. Look at our previous games, we've been playing well. The evidence is there. It's not as if we're getting hammered.

"We're actually in all these games and we're controlling games. I don't think confidence is an issue."

Murray's substitution at a time when Ireland were cresting a wave of dominant control was bizarre; even more so, the official line, dutifully trotted out by the player himself.

"Tiredness" was proffered; making one wonder just what the IRFU's Player Welfare programme is really about. Or perhaps he was, loyally, shielding his indecisive coach from yet more unfriendly fire.

Ireland strenuously argued that the decisive scrum turnover that launched Louis Picamoles was an incorrect call; so too Vincent Debaty's innocence in tussling with Keith Earls to meet Eoin Reddan's chip.

"It's not decisions from referees, it is our decisions as well," argues Earls, summing up the general feeling that luck's desertion of the Irish only comprises half the tale of the tape.

"It's been a strange championship for us. There have been highs and lows from the first round to now.

"That's all we needed, the bounce of a ball to go our way to get a penalty. Paddy Jackson was kicking extremely well. I felt that if we got another few decisions going our way we would have won it."

The reality is that they didn't; the gap between what Ireland are purporting to achieve and the end result, the bottom line, is becoming more elusive than ever.

On a day when O'Driscoll's tears moved many – some, inanely, towards the exits – and Reddan's bravery typified his compatriot's commitment, Murray's desperation is almost poignant.

"We wanted to come out today and put on a good performance and I think we did that for most of the game. We just needed to keep the scoreboard ticking over. A positive result in Italy next week, it probably won't hide things but it will leave us in a better place than we were after Scotland."

The 10,000 or so Irish supporters heading to Rome will certainly hope that they can witness a brighter conclusion to a championship which seems to be confirming that this team has forgotten how to win.

From the fun and frolics of February's first half in Cardiff, the ides of March now loom ominously for so many within this squad.

Burgeoning promise supplanted by burdening anxiety. As the chimney stack is mounted atop the Sistine Chapel for this week's conclave, the smoke fuming from its flue will add eerily appropriate imagery to a defining, era-ending week for an Irish squad enduring the most painful of transitions.

Irish Independent

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