George Hook: Questions linger but happy days may be here again
Ireland, following their seven-try demolishing of Argentina, increasingly resemble a weekend club golfer. Two weeks ago a simple par was impossible and this weekend, in the rugby equivalent of the Captain's Prize, Ireland bisected every fairway, hit every green in regulation and knocked putts into the hole with aplomb.
Indeed, the answer to this conundrum may lie in golfing lore.
It was obvious that Jonny Sexton had a lesson from the professional in midweek. By the simple act of moving five yards forward and lying flat, the three-quarters moved with a new purpose. Suddenly, as if by magic, the depth, angle and alignment – so badly missing against South Africa – were correct.
Saturday was the fly-half in Leinster mode and it is hard not to believe that there was not a telephone conversation with Joe Schmidt in midweek. If Padraig Harrington and Phil Micklelson seek advice before a Major, why not Sexton?
On Saturday, I suggested that this team could not make a line break or score a try. Similarly, I pointed out that irrespective of the opposition, correct attacking formations break down defences. Argentina, like Fiji, were put to the sword by different players using the same skills. South Africa escaped because of the failure to apply the similar patterns. QED.
Last weekend I considered that Craig Gilroy had made the case to be the best wing in Ireland. His try yesterday was the most exciting effort of this or any season. In beating five defenders, he displayed the attributes of Nureyev, George Best and Shergar. Gilroy brings audiences to their feet in the same way that Tony O'Reilly and Simon Geoghegan did at a similar age.
His brilliance begged the question as to why he has languished on the bench at Ulster and where was the IRFU player development programme? Furthermore, Man of the Match Donnacha Ryan, was unheard of until age 28. We can ill-afford to be so cavalier with talent.
Declan Kidney now faces an interesting selection dilemma, assuming that Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney return. With Gilroy a certainty for Cardiff in February, he has to choose between Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble on the other flank. Three years ago three Ulster backs lit up the Aviva; it is time to give Luke Marshall, another of that trio, a chance in midfield and provide an orderly succession to Gordon D'Arcy.
Ryan had a magnificent match, particularly at the line-out. His work in that area had gone unnoticed against the 'Boks because of the problems in other parts of the field. On Saturday, he was peerless, although invariably unchallenged by the opposition. Watching the tame efforts at contesting the Irish throw, one wondered how just a week previously, this team had stolen six French throws.
Similarly at the scrum, Argentina, who have based their game on power at the set piece, were puny. There was an audible reaction in the ground when the first scrum of the afternoon stayed steady and Ireland handled the blue and white effort easily. The Puma's loose head Marcos Ayerza gave Mike Ross the easiest of rides. His arm, so crucial in scrummaging, was invariably tugging at the tail of his opponent's shirt instead of keeping Ross' right arm engaged. It was a pitiful display that mocked the power of his predecessors.
Ireland this week, as last, gave away cheap points through indiscipline and poor control of the restarts. With points to spare, it may not have mattered, but one has to imagine that Six Nations' matches will be much tighter contests.
The result of the weekend was Italy's narrow defeat by Australia. Fly-half Luciano Orquera had a penalty chance sail just wide that would have given the Azzurri a historic draw. Rome will not be an easy place to visit in 2013.
Argentina, like Fiji, provided weak opposition. But it is important to concentrate on the positives. In successive weeks, teams in green have dismissed opponents that failed to deliver. In the past, Ireland have struggled against poor opposition like the USA, Georgia and Namibia. Great teams are ruthless. Hopefully, this is not another false dawn and we are seeing the rebirth of Irish back play.
However, the question must be asked what happened to Argentina in a week, imperious against Wales, combative against France, but ineffectual against Ireland? One can only assume that the number of games played in the last four months took their toll. Yet the other three southern hemisphere nations did not show similar failings.
If these players are tired, then one can only imagine what is in store for them at their clubs in the coming months. The wisdom of the IRFU control over their players match quotient gives them a chance to recover. An opportunity denied so many nations by clubs eager for their pound of flesh. In that regard one must wonder about the medical supervision of the badly-shaken Nicolas Sanchez, who was allowed return to the field after getting a very heavy knock.
Saturday's win will boost Ireland's hopes for the Six Nations. The theory that the odd-numbered years give an advantage because France and England are in the Aviva may yet again hold good. The immediate effect may be seen in a fortnight when the provinces restart their quest for Heineken Cup glory. Leinster, Munster and Ulster will thrill the crowds with the brilliance of Sexton, Zebo and Gilroy.
Happy days may be here again.