Thursday 22 February 2018

Brendan Fanning: Failing to get an edge

Declan Kidney has passed up a chance in this series to build a squad, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

M uch was made last week of how tired and sore the Ireland players were after three Saturdays of Test rugby. And how this afternoon's Test with Argentina is a new departure for our lot at this time of year, playing four games back to back.

Well, consider what they'll have to get through if they want to sit down at the business end of the World Cup: four warm-up games in August followed by four pool games in September/October -- that's eight games over 10 weekends. 'Bumps and bruises' is the standard phrase we get in every medical update. They may need to expand their vocabulary after that lot.

To have any chance of succeeding you need a squad who can play as well as hold tackle bags. This November was about moving the game on, winning matches and building the squad.

Starting at the middle, if Ireland lose today it will make for a woeful record of one win from the last seven Tests, or one from the last nine games, including the Barbarians and the Maori. It won't be that bad. They will win.

And moving swiftly along to the issue of squad-building, if Mike Ross chooses to go back to the UK, or elsewhere, at the end of the season, then you could only wish him well. To have him around the squad for the month and not to get a look-in was plain poor selection. The worst bit was him having to sit on the bench for Leinster today because he wasn't with them to prepare.

Equally, if Gavin Duffy ends up making the plane to New Zealand then he might wonder why he wasn't given a run this month. This is the same Gavin Duffy whose form had so impressed the national coaching staff. And Sean O'Brien? One start against Samoa. And then nothing. We will need O'Brien in the World Cup. The more experience he could have got this month, the better he would be then.

Then there is the game we are playing. Gert Smal maintains that he is not frustrated by the fact that the breakdown has been turned into a stick with which to beat defenders.

"I think it goes for both teams," he says. "I think it makes the game a little more attractive. Rugby is about changes and it's good for the game and it's just how do you upskill your players to be able to recycle ball, and with the ball being quicker, it puts more pressure on your defence as well because they can't regroup fast enough. Les (Kiss) is one of the top, if not the top, defensive coach in the modern era."

Yes, Kiss is very good, and largely Ireland's defence was high quality against New Zealand. At least it was in terms of how quickly the line reformed and the tackles were made. More worrying was the ease with which New Zealand turned potentially dangerous turnovers into secure ball.

As soon as one of their players would carry the ball upright into contact, they would flood the area with two or three support players who would drive it aggressively until the ball was returned, or went to ground with the same effect. Rather than contest this area with similar numbers, Ireland immediately adopted defensive positions either side of the driving maul, to man the next phase.

As for ball on the ground, this is now a huge issue for the defending team. With refs micro-managing the poacher -- who a year ago enjoyed enormous latitude -- we have yet to see any team come up with a consistent and legal method of slowing the ball here. And still we wonder why Ireland don't ignore trying to get their hands in, which immediately exposes them to the concession of a penalty, and instead opt to drive straight over the top of the ball and into the space which the opposing scrumhalf wants kept free.

Today is the last chance before the Six Nations to see some real progress in this area. The Grand Slam in 2009 was founded on defence, specifically the ability to delay opponents until a welcoming committee could be formed. Since then, we have struggled to get an edge. Rather we have failed to get an edge.

Between the summer tour and this series the Ireland coaching staff have had enough time to show us the shoots of new growth in this area. Nothing breaking through yet lads.

You can take it that the Pumas will go out of their way to make life difficult here for anything in green. Perhaps their most obstinate and enduring figure is the great hooker Senor Ledesma. Or Mario Ezequiel Ledesma Arocena to give him his full title. Mario is one of the great rugby heads, literally and figuratively. If you saw him in a pair of overalls with a pencil behind his ear, you might believe he was the father of a Test star, but surely not one of the current warriors.

He is heading for his 38th birthday and wins his 78th cap today. He will crack on until the World Cup. Himself and Scelzo and Roncero -- as forbidding a front row as ever liked arms. It wasn't planned that they should still be packing down together.

"Yeah, but the thing is, after the (2007) World Cup, there weren't many possibilities up front, especially in the front row, so we just committed to the team and said we'll keep on going and when the new guys come, we go home," Ledesma says.

"They didn't come as quickly as we wished. Then we love playing -- we love playing for our country. And the coach keeps on picking us. Plus, we know once it's finished, it's finished. And we know the things we are living on the pitch and in the changing rooms are things only privileged guys can live, and as long as I can live those kind of things, I'm going to live it."

A bit like the Italian team who humbled Ireland three times in the 1990s, and then were over the hill when finally they got into the Six Nations, Argentina will go into the Quad Nations in 2012 with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa without the men who got them there.

"Yeah, but I mean, we'd been fighting for that for the last . . . I've been in the team for the last 15 years and we've been fighting all that time to get into a competition. There's always something you lose and something you win when decisions come. We're just too old to get there but we'll be the first supporters to watch those games."

Argentina desperately needs the competition, for currently they are at a disadvantage compared with the other Tier 1 countries. In the past they have coped but since making the semi-finals in France in 2007, they have won only six from 17 games.

"The Quad Nations is the only way to progress," Ledesma says. "Playing six games a year and only getting together every six months, it's not very good. You see with every first game we play on tour, we only have three or four days to train, which really only means two days of hard training, so it's really difficult to get into the tour. Fortunately, this time we played Italy -- maybe if we played France the first game, it could have been different (they beat Italy and lost to France). There's no solution, though. We just have to get on with it."

If they are still talking after this afternoon, then you'd imagine Ledesma could tell Sean Cronin a few stories from 15 years on the road. Perhaps a post-dinner drink tonight?

Gert Smal was telling Cronin last week how well he'd done in the last six months to get two Tests against the All Blacks and one against the Wallabies. We're not sure how he described what's in store this afternoon for the young hooker but certainly it will be instructive.

You couldn't help notice how often Cronin mentions how he likes games fast and loose. Of course he does: he covers 10 metres in 1.64 seconds; he can transform static to electric with one flex of those fast-twitch fibres. He may well be our starting hooker in the World Cup. Moving to Connacht was the making of him.

"I've been asked loads of times would I encourage young players to go to Connacht and I say the same: you have to sit down and have a hard look, a hard think through for yourself -- weigh up the options," he says. "It's a tough decision but if you have to make it, you have to do it. Connacht has been good for me and it has been good for a few lads that have moved there and have done really well."

In the business of squad-building, Kidney wouldn't be able to use Cronin as he is now if Connacht hadn't brought him to the party. But the coach needs to deliver more on this than talk about how important it is. This series offered him and his staff the chance to innovate defensively -- today is the last chance for that -- and to give more time to more players. The latter opportunity was wasted. Let's hope some of the other stuff comes through.

Ireland: G Murphy; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton, P Stringer; C Healy, S Cronin, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Reps: D Varley, T Court, D Toner, D Leamy, E Reddan, R O'Gara, K Earls.

Argentina: M Rodriguez; H Agulla, G Tiesi, M Bosch, L Gonzalez; F Contepomi, N Vergallo; R Roncero, M Ledesma, M Scelzo; M Galarza, P Albacete; G Fessia, J F Cabello, J F Lobbe

Ireland v Argentina,

RTE2, 2.30

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