Tough calls needed to restore faith
It's a question of faith. In this Six Nations championship, Ireland coach Declan Kidney has shown great faith in the same set of players and received mixed results in return.
He has placed his faith in match officials giving Ireland an even break only to have a series of decisions go against him -- outrageously so on Saturday -- while his overall faith in this team being on the right path for World Cup achievement has been rocked by an uncertain campaign.
As has the faith of those of us who were convinced that Kidney would lead Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final later this year.
Going into this clash against an individually talented but eminently beatable Welsh team, there was a real sense that Ireland were about to 'click', ready to produce the complete performance they had hinted at in previous outings and spoken about in the build-up. However, despite a compelling opening spell, which led to a championship-equalling 24th try for captain Brian O'Driscoll, converted by Ronan O'Gara for an early 7-0 lead, it never all came together.
Discipline dominated the build-up, and Ireland were much improved in this regard, keeping their penalty count to single figures -- eight to Wales' 10 -- but there will still some needless concessions and once Sean O'Brien gave away the first after 16 minutes for not rolling away, Warren Gatland's men grew in confidence and got a foothold in the game.
Before the Mike Phillips 'try', Ireland were in control, afterwards they were chasing the game against a fired-up home side roared on by rabid fans.
However, the result-deciding error by assistant referee Peter Allan was so blatantly wrong that further agonising serves no purpose. Instead, as Kidney stressed, Ireland must, once again, look at factors within their control.
If the penalty count improved, Ireland also did their homework on the line-out, claiming an impressive 15 throws despite their lack of inches in the back-row. Furthermore, it was another good day for the defence. Phillips' score should not have counted and, besides that, the green line never looked likely to part the way Wales's did for O'Driscoll's try.
So, where did Ireland fall down? Well, the error count of 17 surpassed the 14 recorded in the first outing in Rome, comprising fluffed kicks, poor passes and sloppy knock-ons, while there were only two line breaks from the 185 passes completed, though tribute must be paid to Welsh tackling.
They also spurned a basic try-scoring opportunity at the death when lovely hands in midfield set up a two-to-one only for Paddy Wallace to cut back inside, possibly in a premature bid to provide an easier conversion.
The Ulsterman had Keith Earls outside him with a free run to the line and, while there were Welsh defenders covering across, you would have thought an experienced professional like Wallace would have been aware of the concept and value of 'fix and give'.
The bottom line is, four games into the Six Nations championship and five away from the World Cup, Ireland lack a definable sense of purpose and direction -- when they take the pitch one is never sure what to expect.
That needs to be addressed by decisive action, starting with the contentious issue of out-half selection. For the second match in succession, the tactical substitution of Ronan O'Gara for Jonathan Sexton coincided with a downturn in Ireland's fortunes.
The issue of giving both out-halves game time should be put to bed immediately as it is helping neither player nor the team.
When Sexton arrived after 49 minutes, he exuded none of his Leinster certainty. The botched kick out on the full that led to 'Allangate' was followed by the replacement out-half missing a 'sitter' of a penalty kick that would have tied the scores at 16-16.
He had some good kicks out of hand, and was physical in defence, but Ireland lacked authority once O'Gara departed. There is a theory that Sexton should be reinstalled for the England game next week because he represents "the future", but the future for Ireland does not stretch beyond October.
O'Gara may be 34 now, but he is in the business of winning football matches and as that is the primary requirement, he should be left on the pitch to get the job done.
If Ireland are still seeking the right path, England hit a road bump on theirs with a nervy showing against Scotland yesterday when they looked like they were sufering from Grand Slam jitters. However, Martin Johnson is bringing a powerful side to Dublin and one that has become accustomed to winning and, consequently, has the sense of self-belief that the Irish lack.
The flip side is, that despite the inevitable hand-wringing over Ireland's defeat, the majority of pre-match pressure will be on English shoulders.
It is an opportunity for Ireland to go for broke and there are strong arguments for some bold selections.
Firstly, Luke Fitzgerald needs to return to the left wing where the high ball issue becomes less relevant. Although Kidney says Fitzgerald at full-back is a work-in-progress, it hasclearly stalled and England will have seen the effectiveness of sending big centres in pursuit of garryowens aimed at the Leinster man.
He remains a lethal running threat, as he demonstrated just before half-time with a searing surge and head-fake (incidentally, it took place on the left-hand touchline), and it was at No11 that Fitzgerald shone in Ireland's Grand Slam year and for the Lions.
That could allow Tommy Bowe -- back to his best on Saturday -- relocate to the 15 jersey as he looks at ease with up-and-unders, and Fergus McFadden back in the right wing slot he filled against Italy and France.
Once again, Keith Earls looked razor-sharp and hungry for possession. Bringing him into midfield at the expense of Gordon D'Arcy, who is tackling well but struggling to make an impact in attack, would get the Limerickman even more involved.
The pack can be left as it is. Bar some needless penalties, the tight five, with Rory Best and Paul O'Connell superb, had a decent day out while Sean O'Brien and David Wallace had big games in the back-row.
Pending the medical update on Eoin Reddan, who did not have time to make an impression, there is a case for bringing Tomas O'Leary back in at scrum-half. Peter Stringer passed extremely well (one swivel delivery off O'Connell line-out ball was sublime) but O'Leary, although below par earlier in the championship, offers an extra threat around the fringes.
So, once again we face into a Six Nations week with more hope than expectatio, save for the certainty that Ireland will take a sense of injustice into next weekend's clash.
Beating England may not be essential to the grander plan but an 80-minute coherent performance from Ireland is long overdue. Kidney's record ensures the belief he will lead this team to the last four of the World Cup remains - but what was once surety now seems more like blind faith.
WALES -- L Byrne; L Halfpenny, J Roberts, J Davies, S Williams; J Hook, M Phillips; P James, M Rees (capt, R Hibbard 71), C Mitchell (J Yapp 13); B Davies, A-W Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton, R Jones (J Thomas 59).
IRELAND -- L Fitzgerald (P Wallace 71); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (Capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; R O'Gara (J Sexton 49), E Reddan (P Stringer 1); C Healy, R Best (S Cronin 75), M Ross (T Court 68); D O'Callaghan (L Cullen 75), P O'Connell; S O'Brien, D Wallace, J Heaslip (D Leamy 69).
REF -- J Kaplan (South Africa).