We kicked far too often and far too badly
Published 14/03/2011 | 09:33
Throughout our four games in the championship to date, the one thing that has baffled me is this concept we keep hearing about called 'new rugby'.
Word from the camp on an ongoing basis is that "we are ever so close to getting it right".
Now I'm no cynic, but every time I hear this line trotted out I am bursting with cynicism.
Forgive my ignorance here, but what is 'new rugby'? I can only assume it to mean an attempt at aping the All Blacks or, to a lesser extent, the Wallabies in the pursuit of a high-tempo off-loading game.
If that is the case, far be it from me to argue.
However, even before Saturday's showdown, we were miles off that aspiration. To hear those utterings from the Irish camp is worrying.
I cannot recognise anything different this season to last (or indeed to the Autumn Series) in terms of our general modus operandi.
I'm all for giving it a measured lash, making the ball available in the tackle in the hunt for a much more effective game through the hand. Ball played through the hand while still on the feet gets number one on my ballot sheet every time.
It may be working in training behind closed doors, but it sure as hell ain't manifesting itself on match day. Not by a long chalk.
On the contrary, on Saturday in Cardiff it was like turning back the clock to everything bad about France '07 -- most of all the aimless kicking. Just when we thought aerial ping-pong had been banished forever, it was back in all its ugly glory at the Millennium.
Without being overly cynical -- there's that word again -- the Welsh won because they were marginally less bad at kicking away possession than us.
Mike Phillips' try that should never have been sure had an effect in that it turned the tide significantly the other way.
However, in the search for honesty and accurate self-assessment, it is imperative we do not hide behind what was a patent error by the match officials and by the touch judge in particular.
We kicked far too often, far too badly and with little to write home about in terms of kick-chase. In a game built around possession, it borders on the criminal to kick the ball away so consistently and so recklessly.
There is a time for kicking but not almost every time, and particularly not when you are chasing the game as we were following Phillips' try.
We could have nicked it in the end had Paddy Wallace played a simple scoring pass to Keith Earls.
Having just come on for the still uncomfortable Luke Fitzgerald at full-back (a position which Wallace has not occupied for Ulster for some considerable time) all that pent-up anger from sitting on the bench was plain to see when he turned inside, with the only logical and body-free way to the line outside him to Earls. The conversion would have looked after itself.
Far from moving forward, we took two steps back in a poor game against the equally committed but hardly superior Welsh. And poor though the kicking was, even more disappointing was our apparent lack of willingness to run at them with conviction.
What makes the All Blacks so special on the counter-attack is the options created by others through hard graft in getting back behind and in support of the ball carrier.
Much like Barcelona when they lose the ball, it is the midfielders and forwards leading the rush to win it back. Right now, for whatever reason, we lack the wherewithal to make opposition loose kicking tell.
I'm all for the 'new' game, but on this depressing evidence we are some way off it.
On the plus side, we started well, were competitive at the line-out and had some highly encouraging individual performances -- not least from Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls.
Brian O'Driscoll was razor-sharp in all the dirty bits and pieces he does so well, while at the breakdown the work of O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace was particularly effective in forcing turn-overs at critical times.
All that said, you can't expect to win a match when you fail to register a single second-half point.
In relation to the replacement of Ronan O'Gara with Jonathan Sexton, it was the wrong call at the wrong time. It wasn't Sexton's fault that we lost -- indeed his quick hands set up what should have been the match-winning try -- but O'Gara was in the groove and more than well enough equipped to guide us home. The coach got this one wrong.