Friday 20 October 2017

Kidney not 'delirious' but scrum a positive

In one of those cringeworthy, self-indulgent pronouncements to which England's Jonny Wilkinson is so drearily wedded, he recently nominated Italy's 2000 addition to the old Five Nations as his "favourite change to the championship".

Saturday demonstrated crudely that the change has been glacial.

Within Croke Park's bowels, Nick Mallett, the latest poor soul charged with maintaining a modicum of competitiveness within a nation so crudely and perennially ignored by rugby's governing bodies, forlornly proclaims the grand limits of Azzurri ambition a decade on from the day they stunned Scotland in their championship bow.

"Thirty points is the maximum we would like teams to score against us," declares Mallett to the muttered approval of the immaculately-dressed visiting press corps.

And then, as if to trumpet the triumph of negativity, he added: "If the best back-line in Europe can't get the ball on the front foot, then it's difficult to break through."

And so, having frustrated Ireland and the 77,000 or more spectators and those TV viewers who hadn't decamped to watch the 'Murder She Wrote' movie, the Italians skipped off, the only positive notes left behind contained within the sheet music of their wonderfully chirpy national anthem.

Befuddled

While Italy may have felt utterly vindicated by their approach, Ireland will have been left befuddled at a barely functional opening leg of their Grand Slam defence, wary of pleading poverty but justified in counselling caution ahead of the traditionally foreboding jaunt to Paris.

When presented with Mallett's cursory analysis, especially a bleak second act worthy of Beckett, Declan Kidney was understandably unable to conjure up anything colourful with which to fill out this most desolate of canvases.

"We didn't have a whole lot of our own set-pieces but managed to nip a few of theirs," he says. "But none of that is what you're going to use in terms of front-foot play. The scrums were a mix-and-match for both sides; we both stopped each other, slowed each other down. There weren't real set-piece strike attacks from either side."

Six line-breaks -- four for Ireland, two from Italy -- summed up the dearth of attacking threat on display. The scrum contest degenerated into Somme-esque trench warfare -- "neither backwards nor forwards," interjects Mallett, "just down".

Given that Italy coughed up seven of their own throws, sometimes it seemed more beneficial to kick the ball into the stands. At times, many wished it would stay there.

"Yeah, you'd be disappointed you didn't get an extra couple of tries," says Kidney, alluding to the surfeit of charitable possession. "I wouldn't be delirious about the performance but I wouldn't knock it either. You try to keep a balance on things. In the first half, we attacked well down the left side but then passed into touch.

"Then we had Gordon D'Arcy's break in the second half but there was a turnover. If we convert that one more score next week on top of what we did? We need to do all that next week and then hopefully our defence will be as good."

One would assume that the French, all je ne sais quoi and ooh la la, will allow a more fluid game to develop next week and benefit an Irish team clearly stifled on Saturday and, more worryingly, clearly at a loss as to how to overcome their problems.

"I think France will play a different game than Italy and that will present its own challenges," Kidney confirms before adding caution. "Everywhere, we need to improve, we're under no illusions about that.

"We're not trying to fool people. But if we go too much down that road, then we'll all get too anxious and we won't improve. We've six days now, a short turnaround.

"I've learned that we need to get our support play much better. How to play off set-pieces. They went well, but how to strike off them when they went well. Defensively, I thought we were okay.

"Our kick-chase needs to improve, our counter-attack in how we exploit that. It's probably a collective thing, rather than individual."

There were positives. The "worst scrum in the world", according to some, survived an expected shellacking, while the squad's depth was tested to a greater degree in championship fare than at any time in recent years.

"Yeah, the scrum came under a lot of focus but it's amazing what happens when eight fellas scrummage instead of three," agrees the coach. "Tom (Court) had a couple of good scrums at the end when they had a change on their loose side.

"Our traditional second-row was gone but we still managed to hold our own there and in the lineouts. We'll work at it. We don't see ourselves as the best but if we work at it and remain competitive, you never know what might happen."

Prompted to respond to Ronan O'Gara's performance, Kidney waxed lyrical about the new generation he has introduced to international rugby -- Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan and debutant Kevin McLaughlin.

"Isn't it great?" he says. "We'll need Rog doing that, we'll need Jonny (Sexton) doing that. I know an out-half is going to get a few more inches in the papers and all that. Thankfully, that's going on in a few positions, No 1 and No 2, the back-row. Kevin McLaughlin did well today. Paddy Wallace and Gordon is one as well. We've Luke (Fitzgerald) and Geordan (Murphy) coming back. We'll need all that.

"That's one of the pleasing things from today. We could have been cribbing about all the knocks and that. To get a win without some of the fellas who were playing this game last year isn't the worst place in the world to be. At the same time, we're not overly excited about the performance either."

Mitigating factors informed much of the rustiness. Two Christmases ago, an Enfield pow-wow informed the Grand Slam quest; this time around, the festive season was crowded by provincial action and Kidney decided against recruiting a festive camp.

Fresh

"It wasn't a risk, well, yes, it was a risk, a decision. The lads were fresh out today. And that's important. You never know, if you're not fresh, the injuries might have been greater.

"The enthusiasm for the way they went about training sessions -- the result then will come in five or six weeks' time. You can't flog a dead horse."

Next week will provide a better examination of the Irish thoroughbreds. Hopefully, the trainer can have his charges on the bridle in the Stade de France.

"Just go out and play," will be Kidney's unfettered message.

"I haven't seen the exact scores from the last four trips to France. Maybe we just go out and bat first in cricket terms and not give them the ball," he says.

"It's not so easy; I'm not sure what "allez, allez" means but if they get into that mode, we'll be chasing the ball around the place. So we're going to have to get it. We're going to need an awful lot more ball. I'd say we lost field position and time on the ball today. And if we do that against the French, we won't win."

As Saturday proved, winning is the only thing.

Irish Independent

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