Thursday 18 January 2018

Leadership void tells as lack of cutting edge condemns Kidney's men to defeat

Pressure mounting on management to save sinking ship, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ireland's conundrum was obvious from the start: not smart enough to out-think their opponents nor big enough to out-muscle them. How were they going to win this match?

They went into the game without the Mount Rushmore of leadership -- O'Driscoll, O'Connell, Best and Kearney -- and this leadership deficit was telling in the end. Ireland had 60 per cent possession and nearly 60 per cent field position but they lacked firm direction and surety of control which their leaders give them.

Ireland, you sensed, would have to score tries to win this one and they never looked remotely like threatening the Springbok line.

The Boks defended their way to victory. Their back row plied the contact area with impressive shows of aggression and their midfield easily closed off some of Ireland's more predictable attacking forays. There were fewer holes in the Springbok defensive line than you would find on Ray Charles' dartboard.

This Springbok side is far from one of their vintage XVs and you would wonder whether they can cabal themselves together in three years for the World Cup in England. They have quite a number of weaknesses, foremost amongst them was a lack of outhalf who could control the game for them. Patrick Lambie has a deft set of skills and showed some nice touches throughout the game but if the Boks had a commanding presence at 10 they would have run away with this game in the second half.

They also seemed unable to create space and use their wingers. Bryan Habana is a serious loss to them. I always get the impression that he doesn't do what he is told and turns up in the best position from loose situations and either creates or finishes opportunities for them. Pietersen and Hougaard (a converted scrumhalf) stuck to their script and never wandered in-field looking for the ball or gave themselves up as extra men. Neither though did Ireland, although Tommy Bowe tried.

At 12-3 at half-time, just before Sexton missed a penalty to make it 15-3, you sensed Ireland were going to scramble their way to an unlikely victory. However, in the second half Ireland looked like an unmade bed. Their execution was poor, they gave away far too many sloppy penalties and they made targets of themselves by trying to get the ball further wide from slow ruck ball.

There is no question that they were inherently brave and there were performances from individuals which were far better than I would have expected. Although the match was open until the very end, you always got the impression that mentally Ireland weren't really sure how to concoct a game-winning try and as the closing minutes came, they gave the impression of a string quartet fiddling faster as the ship sank.

This is a match where had Ireland been in a good frame of mind they would have won. We do not look at the composition of the team more the direction in which they are travelling. Serious questions now have to be asked about their ability to score tries. They have only scored one in their last three matches and after watching Argentina defend in their fantastic victory against the Welsh, you would wonder whether Ireland will cross the whitewash in two weeks' time. Les Kiss is a defensive coach primarily and his change of job had better produce some tries very quickly. Leinster and Ulster know how to score tries, how come the national team can't do it?

In the post-match interview Declan Kidney had the look of a man who suddenly realised that he'd left some stew cooking away on the stove. If they cannot raise their performance to beat Argentina, then decisions will have to be made.

To add to all of these other issues, it was a very poor match to watch and I cannot wait until the second week in December for the Heineken Cup to come back. Yesterday was a beautiful evening for rugby. It was a pity nobody wanted to play. There were plenty of flashy boots on display, but the rugby never came close to matching the footwear. Instead we had to watch a fairly vacuous game of kick-chase. Yes, most of the kicks could be described as stratospheric but if you asked most rugby fans about the Pepsi challenge -- they want to see ball in hand as opposed to being kicked into the air.

Mike McCarthy did indeed have a fine game, but man of the match? He was very active in the loose but gave away a number of penalties. Ruan Pienaar was the most effective player on the park and he alone controlled the game for the Springboks. If Pienaar had a partner outside him to take away some of the pressure he would be far more effective.

The Springboks had three or four goal-line attacking forays so to only profit from one of them was profligate but as usual Pienaar managed to work his way over from one of them. He is like a rattlesnake with a silencer and he struck in the 42nd minute under the sticks, McCarthy missing the vital tackle.

I could not say that I was encouraged by Ireland's performance. They were held scoreless for the entire second half and they do not look sure of themselves when in possession and it will take some real honesty and not a little mental application to ensure that this is not a barren November series.

Sunday Indo Sport

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