Sunday 4 December 2016

Stupidity remains a threat to our progress but losing is not an option for Ireland

The running game has been kicked to touch, so Neil Francis expects a bore-fest that Ireland should win if they keep the penalty count down

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

Ireland Rugby Squad Training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland Rugby Squad Training. Photo: Sportsfile

As a realist, it is sometimes quite hard to divest myself of the protective carapace of cynicism. It's a comfort blanket. I don't do upbeat. If you are looking for an infusion of enthusiasm, stock up somewhere else -- we are all out of it here. Murrayfield on a Sunday of paralysed boredom. Medusa won't get any change out of this crowd.

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When you know in advance that the team who will likely win this match is the one with the lowest error count -- and I'm pretty sure both teams know this themselves -- then we are in for 80 minutes of lowest common denominator rugby. That sock drawer you've neglected for so long probably will need some TLC by 3.30 this afternoon.

For the first time in his career as Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, a transparently decent man and a rugby humanist, will have to sweat on a match of nominal value as far as the championship goes, but will have serious implications for him if they lose.

Years ago in a Wimbledon locker room, a beaten opponent of Chris Evert shouted out to be heard, 'Thank God my happiness doesn't depend on the result of a tennis match'. Evert responded by saying, 'Thank God mine does'. Winning is everything! In a revelation of character, Kidney told us a lot about what this match means to him. "Not everybody that you would like to get a game gets a game, but I think Ronan deserves a game and that's why he is getting a start. I think Jonathan has come on; he was a very good player before we ever met him and I think he has improved no end. But this was a game I just wanted to give to Ronan."

What a load of oul' cock. What he is saying is that he doesn't trust Jonathan Sexton to win this game for Ireland. As a consequence, a year and a half of player development and confidence goes down the pan.

You can't disguise it, this is going to be a tricky game and the coach shows his true colours. It's not about squad rotation or 15-minute cameos. This match has to be won and the coach all along knew that his number one would come in. If Ireland had beaten France, Sexton would undoubtedly have started, but today we line out with a different psychological frame of mind -- copperfastened by the coach's selection at outhalf. The media went with it -- but just because nobody complains doesn't mean all parachutes are perfect.

Kidney's intuition and tight calls have been eerily prescient in the past and, like Chris Evert, if we win then we'll all be happy. But if we lose, where do we go for the Welsh game? "This is a game I just wanted to give to Jonathan" . . . hmmm.

Champions get it right from the start. We didn't and that is why the coach is in this predicament. Switching around your outhalves, the most important player on the pitch, is bad news in a World Cup year. Sexton playing exactly to orders suffers for his diligence. If the team wins do they go back to the type of game they attempted to play in the first two matches when they go to Cardiff? If you run everything you become predictable, if you kick everything you do likewise. Sexton knew when to kick against France, he didn't choose not to, his coach told him not to. Pragmatism rules -- does it require a change of pivot?

The instructions that will be given to O'Gara is not to run ball in our own half. He will have to kick really well. The Scots do not give the ball back cheaply in Murrayfield. They might not score or threaten your line, they do almost bore you into making mistakes with their incessant phases -- that doesn't really taken them anywhere -- if you don't keep your concentration, they do eke out opportunities eventually. I have, though, a cunning plan.

The IRB have produced a booklet called The Rules of the Game. If every member of the Irish squad was to read it and memorise, in particular, rule 11 which relates to Off-Side, rule 12 the Knock-On and rule 14 which concentrates on the Ball on the Ground/Ruck. If they are aware of what does and does not constitute a penalty in these areas of play and they decide to observe these rules well, it automatically negates Scotland's best chance of winning the game. Namely by giving Chris Paterson kickable penalties.

In Ireland's last 12 games they have given away an average of 12 penalties a game. They allowed an average but competitive Scotland side to beat them in Croke Park by giving away 12 penalties. Most commentators call it ill-discipline, I call it stupidity.

Simple, avoidable, unnecessary actions or inactions by professional players who know the laws backwards, yet choose the course of the inept. It is all the more galling in the case of Scotland, where if you stay within the legal boundaries they haven't a clue what to do with all the ball they will have. If Ireland cut their penalty count to single digits, they will win.

Ireland were unlucky last year in Croker. Luck they say is like a Lada, it generally only works if you push it. Ireland got a little bit trippy at the breakdown a year ago. This year maybe pull back a bit; Nigel Owens I think treats you better if you are nowhere near the edge.

Much has been made of the battle of the back row, but I think it will be in the front row where the game will be decided, but not the way you'd think it. For most of this and last season, Ireland's scrum has looked like it has been thrown together by the first two little piggies. It held up reasonably well though in the France game. The scrum is never a factor in the Scotland game. Nobody possesses an offensively powerful unit here. Euan Murray refuses to play on Sundays for religious reasons. I reckon God told him it could be the worst Test match in history and anyone who plays in it might have to answer for his crimes at the pearly gates.

You will have observed that over the first series of games most of the line breaks have been forced where cattle stand -- O'Driscoll glided through on Castrogiovanni and Perugini. Toby Flood on the same pair again in the Italian game and Paul James and Craig Mitchell in the Welsh game. Trinh-Duc and James Hook on Allan Jacobsen. The strike runners sense weakness on the line, a bit like a Yellowstone pack of wolves sensing a hobbling bison from half a mile. Normally you try and keep the crash test dummies as close to the tackle zone as possible, but it has been noticeable how pace players find the plodders, particularly in the second half. This is how the few try opportunities that come about will almost certainly be mis-matches.

I am certain about Cian Healy's ability on the line. Less so about Mike Ross. Last season it looked like Ross had been poured into his jersey and somebody forgot to shout stop. This season he has lost a lot of weight and his industry and work-rate have improved immensely. He also carries reasonably well. I don't think Allan Jacobsen will present too much of a difficult proposition for him at scrum-time. The line so should be a priority. Ireland for sure will have to make more tackles than Scotland to win this game, and do so legally. In a game that I think will be close, one mis-match could be the difference.

The consequences of losing are significant. In sport, there is nothing worse than the stale smell of decomposing hope and aspiration. The year is on the line.

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