Tuesday 16 January 2018

Expansive game beyond a team going backwards

A stadium built for the future delivered an occasion rooted firmly in the past.

Far worse than the technical flaws in line-out and scrum was the prevailing feeling throughout a dismal opening hour that this Ireland team, shockingly, did not appear as if they had been well coached at all.

While the South Africans delivered the 2007 World Cup-winning game plan, despite the fact that such an approach surely has a death sentence hanging over it, Ireland improbably reached further into their undistinguished past.

It was like watching 'Reeling In the Years', appalling amateurish mistakes combining with undeveloped running from back-line players who looked like they had just been introduced to each other at breakfast.

There was no pattern, no decipherable game plan -- the fatuous excuse that "we are trying to expand" is getting so tired at this stage -- and for that this coaching staff, so lauded 18 months ago, must stand indicted.

Ireland's much-trumpeted attempts to expand their play are deeply flawed. Even if the latent quality possessed by some of Ireland's players allowed them to resurrect a face-saving outcome to Saturday's result, there is not enough natural skill and talent within this country to execute such a style.

But that's presuming a team has firstly bothered to physically engage. Nobody thought to question the direction the team were taking -- not the captain, not the pack leader, not the out-half, not the coaches.

Brian O'Driscoll, against a poor direct opponent, did not beat one player. He did not make one line-break. He did not carry the ball forward once. He did not offload once. Because he never got the chance. So Ireland's approach denies their only true genius the ball. It is absolute folly.

One cannot just execute a game plan and say to hell with all the consequences. Physical engagement is an absolute must. The Irish players, to a man and to the insufferable boredom of us all, had been preaching this mantra all week.

The Irish captain admitted that perhaps this wasn't the day to play pyjama rugby; for such an experienced team to display this level of naïveté was astonishing. Victor Matfield knew better.

So if Ireland have neither the wit nor the intelligence to so adapt, even before one contemplates the inconsistencies of their set-piece and the absence of an innate offloading, support-based way of playing the game, they are doomed from the very outset.

Thus primed, their approach was inexplicable, their doggedness in pursuing such a plan mind-bogglingly inane and, against opponents clever enough to keep the game as simple as the conditions demanded, utterly predictable.

"We knew exactly what they were doing," confirmed Peter de Villiers.

That summed up Ireland. The Irish said afterwards that South Africa got field position and they took opportunities, almost as if such factors were cruel twists of fate. But the only reason they got field position and got opportunities was because they were afforded them by Ireland, who freely granted them possession from touch with poor kicking when they weren't turning over insipidly in uncertain phased play.

By my reckoning, they turned over ball 30 times. That statistic alone fails to support Ireland's theory that they can institute this elusive expansive approach. It is an admirable, laudable aim. Unfortunately, it is an impossible dream.

In their heart of hearts, the Irish management would not have expected to have either Ronan O'Gara or Peter Stringer starting at the next World Cup. Saturday's evidence suggests that their dovetailing remains more practical for Ireland than ever.

David Kelly

Irish Independent

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