Wednesday 21 February 2018

George Hook: Old reliables not so reliable anymore

George Hook

George Hook

IT was a walk in the park for the Ireland XV against Fiji but it contained, as Moses said to the multitude, some good news and some bad news.

The good news was that the youngsters delivered a clarion call for recognition to the coach.

The bad news was that the old reliables are not so reliable any more.

The selection was about picking an experienced pack to dominate up front and a young backline behind to bring some flair to the proceedings.

Flair we got in large measure, but the experienced pack played to form, lacking dynamism in the open and conceding an inordinate number of penalties at the breakdown.

Fiji were awful and seemed incapable, despite being Sevens specialists, of passing and catching the ball with any regularity.

The line-out consistently malfunctioned and the defence stood off the attacker. The result was a rash of tries against paper tackling.

The big loser on the night was Mike Ross, who had a rough ride against Jerry Yanuyanutawa. The Irish tight- head could have been penalised half a dozen times and, in one lovely cameo, the Fijian loosehead looked appealingly at the assistant referee seeking some redress.

Referee Leighton Hodges of Wales had no idea what was going on and never moved to the other side of the scrum on the Irish put in. Predictably, poor David Kilcoyne was penalised as Ross went to ground once more.

The arrival of Michael Bent did not affect the game as the visitors' scrum had lost interest but this time, the Kiwi showed a real athleticism around the pitch. It will be a big surprise if he does not start against Argentina.

Fiji, despite having six times the population of Samoa, are inferior because they do not play as physical a game as their neighbours.

Ireland will be under pressure in the world rankings next week, although Samoa are unlikely to beat France and Scotland against Tonga will not count.

Still, Jamie Heaslip's description of the win as "massive" was a little over the top, and Ireland now are fighting for international respectability.

The young Ulster contingent was superb.

Luke Marshall was comfortable on the ball and his dummy and pass for Craig Gilroy's opening try was a lot more difficult than he made it look.

His centre partner Darren Cave was outstanding in tight corners and he invariably laid the ball off.

The midfield benefited from Paddy Jackson's appreciation of depth and space.

The best try of the night came from a training ground move that owed much to Jackson and the insertion of Simon Zebo.

The watching Jonny Sexton must have wondered how he cannot orchestrate the same effect with the full national backline.

Watching Gilroy's tour de force, it was hard to believe that he cannot command a regular place for Ulster, where he is playing second fiddle to Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe.

The dangers of recruiting foreign players becomes a problem when Jarred Payne and Ruan Pienaar fill places at the expense of quality Irish talent.

This does not mean that Gilroy could play at full-back or half-back, but the IRFU must keep the indigenous players involved. Gilroy could become the first Ulster player to go from the second XV to Ireland since Roger Young.

Until the arrival of Zebo, there was no threat from full-back, and the Corkman should stay at No 15.

Similarly, Conor Murray did enough to remain in pole position at scrum-half. He made a conscious effort to improve his delivery, and particularly his box kicking.

However, the pack of seven seasoned performers huffed and puffed to little effect, and there is a real problem with presentation of the ball at the ruck.

Recent statistics show that quick ball is presented by New Zealand at 60pc of the rucks, whereas Ireland's percentage is closer to 30pc.


The upshot is that unless there is an improvement, Ireland's back play will lie fallow.

The one bright spark up front was Iain Henderson, who was active all night and demonstrated great upper-body strength with a try-saving steal on the Irish line.

Ireland face a testing examination next week. Declan Kidney will take the conservative selection option and, unless his team can subdue the Pumas up front, then it will be a sixth consecutive loss at international level.

Keith Earls and Gordon D'Arcy are not a better partnership than Cave and Marshall.

Gilroy may be the best wing in Ireland; he certainly offers a better option to Ulster and Ireland than the average and underperforming Trimble.

If the IRFU wants to sell seats in 2013 they would need to remember the shameful mistreatment of young players by soccer manager Giovanni Trapattoni. If Ireland are to go down to defeat, let's do so with all guns blazing.

Finally, Fiji were not very impressive but they were dismissed in the fixture list as an international team.

I wonder how Ireland would have felt if New Zealand put their second team on the field, did not award caps and moved the match to a backwater like Wanganui?

Irish Independent

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