Tony Ward: Ireland must return to pressure game
Ireland must return to pressure game if Kidney’s team are to have any chance of putting stop to putrid Paris record
IN THE lead-up to last week’s game, much of the attention focused on how Ireland would adapt to the absence of our lynchpin Brian O’Driscoll, and to the change in attacking strategy under the new backline think-tank of Mark Tainton and Les Kiss along with Declan Kidney.
Alas, on both counts, we struggled. Given the outcome and the six-day turnaround, today it’s essential that Ireland return to basics and utilise a defensive strategy that’s unrecognisable from Lansdowne last Sunday.
While the final concession of territory and the ease with which the Welsh worked their way upfield led to our eventual downfall, what went before was just not like Ireland. To negate is so much easier than to innovate.
And whatever else we may be accused of in recent times, standing off the opposition has not been one of them. Whether it’s a variation on the ‘four up’ or the blitz defence, the overall theme has been consistently one of cutting down space and time.
But against Wales, for some reason, we chose to offer extraordinary room, in a variation on the drift defence. Those Welsh steeds ran riot. Incidentally, Ireland made more tackles (127) in the opening match than any other team last weekend, but it’s not the quantity, sometimes not even the quality, but more the context in which they are made.
The real hurt wasn’t in the Stephen Ferris penalty per se, but the danger zone in which we found ourselves far too easily late on. The Welsh were the better side overall, but still Ireland could and should have come away with the win.
In the search for excuses, match officials Wayne Barnes and Dave Pearson represent the easy place to go – but looking back at the entire match on video would have been a sobering exercise for the Irish camp.
Rugby is a simple game when you are going forward. It is essentially the battle of the gainline. The Welsh won that engagement convincingly, but we are so much better than that.
The bulk of last Sunday’s pain was self-imposed. We must accept the absence of the calculated ‘shooter’ of O’Driscoll down that outside channel and concentrate on exerting collective pressure instead.
If Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana or Francois Trinh-Duc are given the freedom in Paris that Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland were granted in Dublin, we will be blown out of this fixture as mercilessly as ever before. Put yourself in Philippe Saint- Andre’s shoes and tell me, on last week’s evidence, just how different will the French plan of action be today?
They may have beefed up their pack and changed the scrum-half out of necessity, but the policy and order from the top down will be for more of the same.
So, for Ireland, it’s back to defensive basics. To borrow from Jack Charlton, it’s about putting the opposition under pressure, and that’s what we failed to do last Sunday. Stand off the French in Paris and it’s as close as you can get to rugby suicide.
I hope that extending the brief of defensive coach Kiss and kicking coach Tainton to embrace attack (in the place of Alan Gaffney) will not see us falling between too many stools, as seemed to be the case with the mixed message coming out against Wales.
Let’s hope it was a glitch and that tonight sees a return to the familiar smother defence with which we are most at ease.
To that end, Kidney has opted to make just the one change from last weekend’s defeat, with Keith Earls replacing Fergus McFadden, who drops to the bench.
The quick turnaround may have saved a few others from exclusion. It has also switched the onus to deliver from coach to team, particularly those who failed to deliver against the Welsh.
Earls is most certainly not picked for his physical attributes opposite the athletic Rougerie, but provided the quality of collective defending improves dramatically from last Sunday’s limp showing, then one-on-one should have minimal relevance.
Stand off in defence again and it will be the Welsh reversal revisited for sure. Whatever else Irish teams may have lacked in times past, inability to compete at the gainline was never a problem, and tonight our defensive platform must be the bottom line.
Despite last week’s four-try success over Italy, Saint-Andre has changed a third of his team. It’s a beefier pack with what is guaranteed to be a much more ruthless mindset when facing Ireland.
All sensible evidence points to another convincing home win. Our record in Paris is putrid and for the life of me, I can’t see how it’s going to change now. It’s backs-to-thewall time – something for which we are best suited – but the bookies are unconvinced on that one. Take France by nine.