Friday 24 March 2017

Officials' blunder doesn't hide our failures

WALES 19 IRELAND 13

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There is a danger that in rushing to bury touch judge Peter Allan for his shortcomings we might miss Ireland's.

The Scot would feature on any compilation of dodgy decisions from the Magners League and certainly in not picking up Matthew Rees for any one of three infractions in what was a highly controversial Wales try -- indeed their only try in front of 74,233 crowd in the Millennium Stadium -- but Allan is not the issue.

Ireland lost because they didn't have enough ideas. Enough ball to win, but a shortage of craft in using it.

First the try. Jonny Sexton was barely on the pitch having replaced Ronan O'Gara on 50 minutes when he sliced into touch a ball intended for the corner. As we were all considering the pain that had just been planted between his ears, Wales hooker Matthew Rees took a quick throw to Mike Phillips, and from roughly half way the scrumhalf got home to Ireland's corner easily enough.

Immediately the Irish protested to referee Jonathan Kaplan who consulted Mr Allan. If Rees wanted to take a quickie then it had to be with the same ball that had gone out of play, and it couldn't have been handled by anyone else. Instead, with that ball in the crowd, he picked up the one left for him by the ball-boy, stepped over the line as he took the throw, and that was that.

So yes, the try should have been disallowed, and you'd expect the Scot will pay for his mistake by slipping down the referee rankings. The price Ireland paid is not as high as you might think, for had we won -- had Paddy Wallace passed to Keith Earls instead of stepping inside into a tackle in what was the last play of the game -- it would have been easier to focus on what would have been an extension of Ireland's romance with Cardiff, an affair that had blossomed, despite a tiff in 2005, since 1983. And that would be a mistake.

In a game of few scrums and many kicks, Ireland's set-piece was pretty good, their punting not good enough, and their play with ball in hand worse again. The best illustration of this was in the 66th minute when Sean O'Brien was penalised for not releasing after a tackle. Incidentally Ireland's penalty count was eight (and 10 against Wales) and didn't unhinge them, but the decision against O'Brien ended a long sequence of Irish possession during which Wales never looked discomfited.

A clever bit of running by Tommy Bowe had opened the door for Brian O'Driscoll in the third minute to give the away team a terrific start -- despite losing Eoin Reddan inside a minute after he was knocked out blocking a clearing kick by Lee Byrne -- but it was misleading. If we thought there and then that Ireland had the code for unlocking the Wales defence they seemed to forget the numbers thereafter.

Nor was their counter-attack up to scratch. Declan Kidney has positioned this team as one that is trying to play a bright brand of rugby that will have a currency in more expensive markets, but the counter-attack remains weak. This is partly down to the players who have to get back and help the man at the back, and, yesterday, partly down to the man at the back.

Luke Fitzgerald made one lovely run down the left touchline in the first half, doing everything right from his angle to his pace to his final pass. It stood out because in pretty much everything else he looked unhappy, and it was strange that Wales didn't give him more bombs to defuse.

This exposed Ireland's bench because Wallace was the option and he came on for Fitzgerald late in the day. Fergus McFadden has form, and had he been there could have come on at 11 or 14 with either Bowe -- Ireland's most dangerous back -- or Earls moving to 15. It was highlighted by Wallace getting it wrong in that final play with Earls going berserk outside him.

Not only were Ireland not good enough but the game wasn't up to much either, despite our hopes. Ireland turned over 13-9 in front at half-time after O'Gara, who hit the 1,000 Test points mark with his conversion of O'Driscoll's try (which equalled Ian Smith's championship record of 24), kicked three penalties to two from James Hook and one from Leigh Halfpenny.

They started the second half well enough, turning over two Welsh attacks in the Ireland 22 -- Rory Best's work rate was tremendous, as was Paul O'Connell's -- but it started going pear shaped when Sexton got a bad start to his game.

Five minutes after his slice had been punished by Phillips, he had the chance to pull back three points from a handy enough position but the longer he delayed over the ball the more ominous it looked. He missed.

On 69 minutes Hook put Wales out to 19-13 when Sean O'Brien was penalised at a ruck, and it set up a thrilling finish with Ireland trying to do a different version of their endgame in Rome. They got most of it right, from the lineout call and delivery -- with Leo Cullen and Sean Cronin late replacements -- to the quick hands that put Wallace in pole position out wide in the Wales 22.

The finish let them down though, and that tells us enough about where this team is at the minute. The championship is gone, the World Cup is coming, and there is still a lot to do.

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