Thursday 22 March 2018

Kidney faces repair job as Irish fail to measure up

Ireland 21
South Africa 23

Hugh Farrelly

LANSDOWNE ROAD on Saturday evening produced more backfires than you would ordinarily expect at a vintage car rally.

The triumphant showpiece that was supposed to be Irish rugby's return to base ended up somewhere between 'Home Alone' and 'Rising Damp'. Swathes of empty seats created a hollow atmosphere with nothing for those drenched supporters who were in attendance to get excited about until the frenetic final quarter.

The commemorative jersey concept, which had exercised the minds of marketing geniuses in the build-up, was another washout. Unremarkable in design, the garment had all the durability of soggy tissue and after repeated rips and changes was abandoned at half-time.

And then there was the rugby. The South Africans are far from the finished article but Peter de Villiers' patched-up, under-pressure side brought the pragmatic '3 Ps' approach that the occasion and the conditions demanded -- possession, position, points.

Ireland were directionless by comparison, playing into Springbok hands by consistently coughing up the ball and were crippled by their malfunctioning set pieces. With Hurricane Tomas making its way to the Irish coast, it had been widely predicted that the weather was going to have a major bearing on the result and so it proved. It was cold, wet and greasy -- not the time for all-singing, all-dancing, new-interpretation rugby but for a return (commemorative or otherwise) to a simple, straightforward game plan geared towards the needs of the day.

South Africa, whose near first-choice pack was counter-balanced by uncertainty out wide, were happy to go old school. They popped the Irish scrum, terrorised their line-out and leathered the ball deep into the Irish half -- and it was all backed up by an intense physicality born out of frustration at the criticism they had been receiving at home and the fact they had been widely written off.


Their front five were completely dominant -- Donncha O'Callaghan fared the best out of the overwhelmed Irish unit -- and it allowed Juan Smith and Pierre Spies to make their presence felt. By comparison, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace got through lots of work but were forced to operate on the back foot until the tempo picked up towards the end.

The reason it did, and why Ireland dragged the game back from a 23-9 abyss to the point where they could have levelled the scores, was a combination of Ireland's impact substitutions and South Africa clocking out too early. Ronan O'Gara came on to win his 100th cap, with his trusty sidekick Peter Stringer winning his 92nd alongside him.

The scrum-half hadn't featured for Ireland for 10 matches, his previous appearance coming against Eddie O'Sullivan's USA side in Santa Clara in May 2009, and he extracted the maximum from his 14 minutes here. With Stringer snapping and barking at their heels, the Irish forwards finally generated some momentum and began to produce decent attacking possession -- in O'Gara, Ireland had a man who knew exactly what to do with it. The result was two tries and a perfectly struck conversion that would have secured a draw had it moved two inches to the left.

His kick for Tommy Bowe's try was beautifully executed and reminiscent of a similar effort and outcome (for Doug Howlett) against Toulon a few weeks ago. At this point, Ireland's play was unrecognisable from the insipid fare that had been on show previously and after a Heaslip surge down the left that could have ended in a score had he spotted Luke Fitzgerald on is left, O'Gara's second tapped penalty set up Rob Kearney's try on the wide right (Victor Matfield making a winning tackle to prevent an easy conversion).

It was a good comeback but no one doubted that the Springboks deserved their victory. Afterwards, the scrum was listed as one of the positives but it was only when Tom Court replaced Tony Buckley that Ireland achieved some solidity and Peter De Villiers singled out Springbok superiority at the set pieces as a major factor.

"We were very surprised that we were in such control in first phase," said De Villiers. "We controlled the set phases and that made it very difficult for Ireland. We missed a few opportunities but we didn't play badly and the win was a tribute to the way the team adapted to the conditions."

So, what can Ireland take out of this game? Well, there was an element of ring-rustiness to their display, which will ease as the month progresses and the fact they were able to almost force a draw is testament to the character in Kidney's squad. The defensive performance was good also but, while Smith's first-half intercept was an attacking rather than defensive failure after sloppy lineout ball led to a rusghed pass by Eoin Reddan, Les Kiss will be having conniptions over the Springboks' second score. Reddan left the space open by being lured wide where Bowe was providing cover and South African full-back Gio Aplon was able to weave his way over.

However, the downsides far outnumbered the ups and there are worrying issues to consider ahead of the All Blacks match in two weeks. Saturday was a backward step for Buckley and tight-head remains a problem, possibly beyond the capacity of John Hayes to solve. The line-out has to be sorted too, which brings Leinster pair Leo Cullen and Devin Toner into the equation, while hooker Rory Best will also be under pressure. The line-out difficulties were not all down to the Ulster man's throwing but, with Matfield and company prowling the line, delivery was uncertain, making the decision to leave Sean Cronin on the bench (as happened last March against Scotland) doubly bizarre.

The half-back positions are up for debate once more. Jonathan Sexton and Reddan were hampered by playing behind a beaten tight five but is it time to revert to the trusted Munster axis of O'Gara and Stringer?

On this evidence, yes.

It was being suggested on Saturday night that Ireland should abandon any notions of the fluid, off-loading game being played by New Zealand and Australia because we do not have the players. That is false.

Ireland showed on the summer tour that they possess the personnel and skill levels required, it was just that last Saturday was not the time to try and force the issue.

Against the world champions on a soggy night with a slippery ball it was time to apply the maxim that was obviously also ignored by those commemorative jersey marketeers -- you cut your cloth to measure.

IRELAND -- R Kearney (K Earls 75); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (R O'Gara 67), E Reddan (P Stringer 66); C Healy, R Best, T Buckley (T Court 50); M O'Driscoll (D Ryan 63), D O'Callaghan; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.

SOUTH AFRICA -- G Aplon; B Basson, Z Kirchner, J de Villiers (A Jacobs 68), B Habana; M Steyn (P Lambie 57), R Pienaar; T Mtawarira, B du Plessis, J du Plessis (CJ van der Linde 70); B Botha (F van der Merwe 70), V Matfield; D Stegmann (K Daniel 66), J Smith, P Spies.

REF -- N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent

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