Thursday 27 July 2017

We don't have a prayer against Aussies at World Cup

By beating All Blacks, Wallabies have laid down marker for 2011, writes George Hook

In February I went to Hong Kong to watch the famous Sevens event. I came away with the certain knowledge that rugby union faced its greatest threat since the fissure with rugby league. By accepting the abbreviated game into the Olympics, the major rugby-playing nations would face a diversion of focus and money.

Meanwhile, the minnows of the world game would see the possibilities of quick advancement in a sport that required little of the technical skills of the 15-a-side game and relied almost entirely on athletic prowess.

Yesterday, I paid another visit to Hong Kong via satellite television and was given a vision of the future for the real game that is rugby union. Australia beat New Zealand in the last minute of a heart-throbbing game full of wonderful skills, outstanding physical conditioning and awareness worthy of Marvo the Magician.

Ireland will be given a preview in the coming weeks of how the best teams in the world intend to challenge for the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Australia face Munster at Thomond Park and Ireland will face the mighty All Blacks at the Aviva.

The rapacious IRFU are having difficulty selling tickets for the November internationals, yet the men in black may be worth twice the admission price, such is the quality of their play.

Making himself a hostage to fortune, Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, talked of establishing a new record for consecutive wins on tour. That aspiration has been stillborn by Australian skills. The men in gold are in Ireland's World Cup pool and on yesterday's performance, Declan Kidney's team does not have a prayer.

This is not the callow scrummaging team last seen in Lansdowne Road but an outfit that makes up for an average scrum and lineout with unbelievable counter-attacking backed up by a tearaway back row. The bad news for Ireland is that Jamie Heaslip is the only Irish forward who might threaten to make either squad on show yesterday in Hong Kong.

People with memories longer than last week might remember that Heaslip was nominated for World under 21 player in 2004, but beaten for the prize by Jerome Kaino. A year later, the Irishman was in front of a TV in the Trinity Pavilion, watching Kaino feature for the All Blacks while he was displaying his awesome but ignored potential in university rugby.

The seven-point last-minute denouement yesterday was delivered by Australia's James O'Connor, another capped at an age when Irish talent is cosseted in low-grade tournaments.

The new law interpretations could have been written in Auckland, such is their advantage to the All Blacks and the southern hemisphere nations. The new interpretations require first a vision, then a willingness to implement, and finally players to take advantage of a regime that tilts the balance in favour of the attacking team. Ireland qualify under none of these headings.

New Zealand lost a proud record in Hong Kong for one sole reason: they kicked the ball badly. The provinces, so far this season, have kicked the ball often and badly. They are stuck in a time warp despite the proliferation of coaches who, by training and practice, are in tune with southern hemisphere attitudes. The problem is that we do not have the players to implement the vision.

It is inconceivable that a team can be successful without a front five to compete at scrum and lineout. If Heaslip was badly treated as a young man, at least the mistake was rectified. In contrast, Bob Casey has been cruelly ignored by successive Irish managements. The London Irish man, albeit at the end of his playing days, has in successive seasons dominated the Leinster and Munster lineouts without recognition. Meanwhile, Mick O'Driscoll, who has been a peripheral figure for his entire career, makes the Irish squad on foot of one good performance against Toulon.

Even Donncha O'Callaghan should have felt the white heat of competition from London. The now senior Munster lock has never dominated opponents at the throw like the émigré Irishman. Casey's physique surely must have some value behind callow Irish props at the scrum. The criticism from those who count the number of rucks Casey hits, have lost sight of Ireland's problem at the setpiece.

I am now certain that the scrum will cease to exist in my lifetime. The health and safety brigade has destroyed an integral part of the game.

Last week in Galway, and yesterday, demonstrated that the game cannot go on with either interminable resets nor have the confrontation invariably end in a penalty. Last week, five of the first six engagements ended with the referee's upraised arm and in Hong Kong, Alain Rolland deemed that almost half of the scrums merited an infringement call.

If the best referee in the world cannot control that segment of the game, then the scrum should cease to be a restart mechanism. The problem lies at the call of "crouch, touch, pause, engage". The gap between pause and engage is interminable and front rows with over 1,000lbs of beef behind them cannot wait that long. Secondly, a four-step process does not fit in to human reflexes. That is why we have three-stage commands, like "one, two, three", "ready, steady, go", and "mark, set, go". One cannot use the criteria for schoolboy safety with international professionals.

November will kick-off with a game against a tired South Africa under Peter de Villiers -- a good coach and a reasonable man driven to extremes by the racial politics of his country. Ireland may win but lose in the quarter-final of the RWC a year later against the same opponents, because I cannot believe that the country that dominated this summer's Super 14 with the Bulls and Stormers playing the new interpretations to the limit, cannot re-adjust in time for the big competition.

Ireland will win two out of four Tests, but I just cannot be sure which ones.

Sunday Independent

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