Tuesday 20 February 2018

Kidney’s injury list opens door for new blood to prove they’re all part of plan

David Kelly

David Kelly

As the battered and bruised Irish enjoyed the second of a two-day break yesterday, Jamie Heaslip was in reflective mood as he gazed upon a dimly lit Dublin streetscape.

"What's it called again when the weather reflects the mood in plays?" he asked, almost rhetorically.

He didn't have to wait long for an answer: pathetic fallacy, as all Shakespearean students will remember, is a device whereby one ascribes moods to inanimate objects, such as the weather.

And so, as the rain sheeted down, it was difficult to know whether his mood had darkened in tune with the economic and political gloom.

Maybe he was still running through Saturday's game in his mind; Ireland throwing their best punches in a year but still being hustled out of town, with six men tossed into the infirmary for good measure. Or he could just have lost his iPod charger.

In any event, the clouds did part occasionally enough yesterday to let Heaslip and others see the sunshine after what was thoroughly an All Black weekend.

However, the pervading feeling as the Irish camp regathered last night would be to affirm that, even if very belatedly, their pursuit of more expressive rugby must continue.

Even if, as Saturday's Test against the world's best ruthlessly exposed, innate skill and system failures may mean that sometimes the perils of expansive rugby may massively outweigh the benefits.

This week will represent an even more significant challenge: how to maintain their planned path of progress with heavily depleted resources. What seems like a crisis should grant opportunity.

For in next year's World Cup, Ireland must be prepared for every eventuality created by injury, and Declan Kidney's stated trust in his 34-man squad will be tested to the limits in the heat of competition.

With Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Rory Best definitely ruled out of contention this weekend against Argentina, who arrive here after a lacklustre defeat to France, Kidney can afford to rejig his pack while still ensuring the integrity of the game plan.

Although the Argentinians will be typically turgid and feisty in a fixture where familiarity has bred much contempt, they will offer a reasonable replica of Ireland's final Pool C game against Italy next October, effectively a quarter-final play-off.

And while Ireland need to be much more intelligent in terms of adapting to the Pumas' more suffocating blitz defence and prevailing weather conditions, attack coach Alan Gaffney asserted yesterday that Ireland will not retreat from their chosen path.

"I think we did what we set out to do and attacked them," said Gaffney, for whom the presence of some semblance of attacking structure, and continuity play, must have been a blessed relief after a poor fortnight.

"It was more about how we, as a team, are trying to evolve and implement our own style and game plan rather than who we were playing. We did that for good periods and I think we saw another step forward on Saturday.


"New Zealand were ruthless at exposing our turnovers, as they have been with most teams this year. You have to be exceptionally tight with them not to give them the ball, as they can make you pay.

"One pleasing aspect was that we created quite a few scoring opportunities, and showed some good patience by holding onto the ball to keep them under pressure.

"If we can continue to do that under the new rules, we can continue to progress in our style and become more of a threat and ask questions of defences for longer periods."

Ireland may need to align their selection policy with their stylistic shift. For example, it would be illustrative to see how Keith Earls may fit in as an outside-centre back-up this weekend, regardless of the starts required for the likes of Sean O'Brien, Mike Ross, Denis Leamy, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner. And while Kidney may have overlooked Geordan Murphy thus far, no player is more appreciative of the benefits, especially in real counter-attack -- merely running back into a brick wall is not counter-attack! -- afforded by the new rule interpretations.

Forwards like Cronin and O'Brien represent the ball-playing, off-loading options that Ireland need to develop hastily at this level over the next 12 months and the former's exposure again to a top Tri Nations side offers invaluable experience.

Gordon D'Arcy's tinged regret at Saturday's result was, he admitted yesterday, leavened by the satisfaction that Ireland are travelling in the right direction.

"I suppose there were mixed feelings after the game," he agreed. "We were happy that a lot of the things we have been trying to do over the last two weeks started to come off, but disappointed at the end that some of our own mistakes allowed New Zealand to capitalise and pull away from us with those quick scores.

"They are very clinical when taking scoring opportunities. As Brian O'Driscoll said, we put in a performance for 66 minutes or so and had them really hurting, but to get the better of them you need to push it further.

"But I think we are getting to that stage if we keep trying things and working as hard as possible for each other. I don't think there is a better side in the world at the moment in terms of punishing you for any mistakes, but I think we can be positive that we are still on the right road and Saturday showed that."

The extent of Ireland's injury problems should not handicap that progress; if anything, the broader scope of involvement from the majority of the squad this November will ensure that a wider selection of players are singing from the same hymn sheet.

The players' initial uncertainty in adopting the coach's mantra is understandable, especially since so many of their fundamentals are still clearly lacking, as was evidenced by Saturday's fitful display.

Ironing out the basics remains integral to the broader vision. However bleak the landscape may seem to be after another humbling lesson from the men in black, there are some shards of light pervading the gloom.

Even Heaslip's twitter followers would be able to tell him that.

Irish Independent

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