Monday 18 December 2017

Belated flourish can't hide scale of Ireland's challenge

Ahead of the World Cup, issues with team selection and substitutes remain, writes Jim Glennon

The temptation to allow a suspension of reality in the aftermath of last week's events is indeed strong, but must be resisted nonetheless. Whatever the enjoyment factor, the competitive element of sport demands objective analysis -- in both victory and defeat -- even if human nature dictates that one's critical faculties are in greater need of priming in the former situation.

It can be safely assumed that the players and management won't be fooled by last week but there is a need for calm and measured discussion on the part of the ever-widening band of rugby supporters and pundits.

If the Six Nations is our primary focus, as I believe it should be, then this was the one that got away, and through our own ineptitude too, rather than any particular attribute on the part of our opponents. Most of us, myself included, probably over-estimated the French, and the team never quite got to grips with either their opponents or the officials' interpretations of the laws. And we just didn't seem to be in the right place mentally to exploit Welsh weaknesses, regardless of that one bad decision.

Our faltering performance in the opening game in Rome turned out to be very much a portent of things to come: stop/start, high negative penalty and unforced-error counts, a failure to impose physically on opponents and questionable management of substitutions. That pattern was continued through the French game, into Scotland and also Wales, with only the penalty and unforced-error counts issues showing real signs of abatement along the way.

In addition, a major uncertainty emerged over the identity of our first-choice playmaker at outhalf, and confidence on the part of team management, and the coach in particular, in the individuals competing for that position.

One of the few downsides of our 2009 Grand Slam was its legacy of higher expectations and, a mere two years on, that's not unreasonable, particularly with the presence of so many of that squad in the current set-up. That legacy dictates third place in the championship is something of a let-down.

For me, the disappointment lies in the lost opportunity -- a championship, and possible grand slam, left behind. There was no outstanding team and we're as good as, if not better than any. In addition we had home advantage against France and England.

Still, I believe it's fair to say we still have our strongest-ever World Cup squad when at full-strength -- Geordan Murphy, Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris will, hopefully, be serious additions to the roster. That strength isn't evenly-distributed though, with a deficit of cover at centre, hooker and prop.

Perversely too, in the context of the availability of two top-drawer No 10s, that position could well pose a serious problem in the light of the coach's apparent inability to nail his colours to the mast or, at least, share his reasoning in an understandable manner with the rugby public. While he's at it, he could do us all a favour, and himself, if he could do the same in relation to his selection and use of substitutes.

Rugby at international level is a game played by 22 players. The vast majority of tactical substitutions take place between the 55th and 75th minutes -- the key period, for a whole range of reasons, for effective substitutions. In other words, there's a 20-minute window for effective use of the bench.

An analysis of the pattern of Ireland's substitutions in this year's championship shows that the vast majority of ours were made between the 65th and 80th minutes. Not only that, but on two occasions on which voluntary changes were made earlier than the 65th minute, the process involved the replacement of the pivotal outhalf -- and with starkly contrasting results too.

It's not all about timing either. The make-up of bench personnel was rightly questioned throughout the campaign.

Finally, one question which was given a resounding answer -- that old perennial one of the anthems -- Amhran na bhFiann or Ireland's Call? After last Saturday it simply has to be God Save the Queen; nothing seems to motivate the Irish, players or supporters, to greater heights.

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