Tuesday 27 June 2017

This game was about respect and Ireland earned it

Fantastic performance lifted crowd, but our best is not good enough, writes George Hook

George Hook

George Hook

Yet again Ireland failed to beat New Zealand but this was a wonderful rugby match and it deserved an absolute full house. Those who made the trip and paid the money would have gone home satisfied.

Declan Kidney, after the match, bridled at the criticism of the previous two weeks but it would have been nothing compared to what he might have faced had his team not delivered.

The performance reinvigorated the nation, saved the coach and made the union's intemperate pricing policy bearable.

The coach's selection raised more questions than answers. Why no Devin Toner? What does Mike Ross have to do to get a chance? And why select a full-back who can catch and kick against a team that will not kick and gobble up misplaced returns? Luke Fitzgerald, despite an inauspicious game against Samoa is, with Geordan Murphy, much more attuned to the demands of the modern game.

Despite all the talk about not kicking, within two minutes David Wallace and Tommy Bowe kicked aimlessly and subjected their colleagues to more lung-bursting defending. When Dan Carter kicked his team ahead after seven minutes, you feared for how long Ireland could hold out against the waves of black jerseys.

Ireland succeeded in giving the ball back to their opponents, three times at the restart, once at the line-out, and the ball was kicked away by Brian O'Driscoll and Eoin Reddan all in the first 15 minutes. Ireland had asked questions but the final decision was invariably wrong. Somehow after 25 minutes Ireland were on level terms.

Playing as they were, Graham Henry's men would have expected to have been three or more tries to the good. It was a testament to Irish courage and organisation. Instead they found themselves a try down to a magnificent try, albeit the product of a forward pass. It mattered not a whit; the home team had soaked up the best the All Blacks had to offer and responded in kind.

Half-time was instructive as the statistics told a worrying story. Ireland had made four times as many tackles and had just a third of the possession. Under normal circumstances, the All Blacks would have been 30 points clear. It was a tribute to Ireland's defence, but more importantly the visitors were less inventive. New Zealand now rely on sheer force of numbers, possession and recycling. They can be beaten by a team that can match them physically and deliver with imagination; France or Australia?

Despite the hours of practice and coaching, Ireland could not control either their own or their opponent's restarts; they still do not appear to understand the requirement to shift the target in order to counter-attack. However, the biggest evidence of Ireland's improved performance was that they succeeded in keeping their opponents scoreless for almost 30 minutes in the second half.

The effort to shore up the scrum saw Tom Court in the unaccustomed role of tight-head, although somebody ought to tell him that his future lies on the right rather than the left-hand side of the scrum. The problem was on the other side, where Cian Healy was consistently penalised as he was unable to take the pressure from Owen Franks. Astonishingly, Kidney decided to replace Court five metres from his own line and the scrum failed on both sides only to be rescued by a Peter Stringer kick.

The fascination with size rather than technique is a New Zealand affectation which has failed for them since 1971 and they have now exported that policy to Europe. In the space of four days we saw the disastrous policy in action. Huge men but poor technicians like Peter Borlase for Munster and Craig Newland for Leinster were destroyed at the set piece. Ireland believes that failed second rows like John Hayes and Tony Buckley can be converted into prop forwards. It has failed and will continue to fail. Interestingly as Irish provinces search for scrum relief in New Zealand, the head scrum honcho for Ireland Greg Feek hails from that neck of the woods. Coincidence!

Sean Cronin's arrival improved the quality of the loose play but even with the advent of Toner, the Irish line-out stuttered on the throw. That failing will cost the Connacht hooker a worthwhile international career.

On his 93rd appearance for the All Blacks, Richie McCaw was still a dominant figure on the ground. Ireland, despite David Wallace's efforts, do not have a single player not only to compete with McCaw but with any major international number seven. The best open-side in Ireland is Brian O'Driscoll and if there was real innovation in Irish coaching, the Irish captain would extend his career by three years and 30 caps if he were to make the move to the flank. In extremis, we have more centres than open-side flankers but the captain remains an astonishing talent as his try demonstrated. But desperate situations need desperate remedies. O'Driscoll versus McCaw would be as compelling as a world heavyweight boxing contest.

This was a fantastic performance which warmed the hearts of the crowd but the reality was that playing at our very best we finished second and a comfortable distance behind. The gap between Ireland and New Zealand has grown rather diminished. In the amateur era the All Blacks averaged just over 10 points; since the advent of pay for play that has risen to 40 points.

This was about respect and Ireland earned it. Carter has always been Henry's barometer of confidence. To protect his star performer, the coach makes a substitution when he feels the game is won. Yesterday, out-half and coach had to go the full distance. Enough said.

Sunday Independent

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