Tuesday 20 February 2018

Bolder approach pays off for Irish as Kidney finally loosens the tactical reins

Tommy Bowe celebrates with team-mate Jonathan Sexton after scoring his second try in Ireland’s 46-24 win over Argentina at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.
Tommy Bowe celebrates with team-mate Jonathan Sexton after scoring his second try in Ireland’s 46-24 win over Argentina at the Aviva Stadium yesterday.

Victory just reward for having the nerve to take risks, writes Neil Francis

A good deal more than a week ago David Steel, the leader of the British Liberals, addressed his party's conference in good confidence. He told them, "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government." A few months later the Liberals picked up half a dozen seats and the genial Scot has had to live with his unwarranted confidence for the rest of his political career.

It is amazing how this season changes from match to match. Could Ireland be set for a good Six Nations championship? Should we get the banners out? Should we boldly proclaim our confidence after this performance? Hmmm.

Goldilocks would find it very hard after her experience to ascertain whether Ireland are too hot or too cold. They have a frustrating tendency not to get things right from the start and if they get off to a good start there is a good deal of certainty that they will finish poorly.

It is very difficult to reconcile the performance against South Africa to the one we witnessed yesterday. There is no question that Argentina's feeble capitulation can be put down to a number of factors – certainly they looked tired and their performance smacked of mental fatigue.

The prime mover in Ireland's ascendancy was their own excellence. I do, however, use this word sparingly. They had a broader range of vision and a greater understanding of how to play their opponents. They also took a huge leap of faith in their ability to unseat Argentina from their traditional throne of tight-forward superiority.

Ireland embraced risk too and moved on from a strictly quantifiable form of tactics, which they had hitherto adopted in some of their big losses over the last six to nine months. Those skills that had lain dormant. We need a reason as to why yesterday they suddenly came to the fore, cocooned for the last six or seven internationals and crystallised yesterday in extravagant fashion.

Ireland scored seven tries yesterday and there would be extra points for artistic merit because not only did they manage to be inventive from set plays, which has been their trademark for the last six or seven years, but they held their shape and looked organised and structured as they went through multiphase, something that has eluded them for a long time.

Simon Zebo's try in the 32nd minute told us that Ireland had spent time thinking about what they were going to do when they were going forward.

Sanchez kicked aimlessly out of defence and the ball was gathered by an alert looking Sexton. The Argentine chase was very slow and lacked conviction. Sexton had a number of options and he signalled to Tommy Bowe that the ball was going up and he'd better chase. The normally reliable and dexterous John Manuel Leguizamon would usually collect with his height and superior footballing ability. Bowe's concentration and want was greater and he nicked the ball out of the Argentina openside's grasp. It was a rousing moment.

Normally, in those turnover situations behind lines the first runner isn't smart enough to get the ball away as far as possible from the turnover zone. The consistently good Chris Henry made the intelligent decision not to go into contact even though it was on. He took Conor Murray's pass, stood up the Argentine defence and flicked it on to Cian Healy. It was a seachange from what they were doing in the South Africa game and then further progress.

Healy popped it inside to Craig Gilroy, who was taken down. Murray again changed direction and got it wider to Heaslip and yet another inside pass to Healy, our Harlem Globetrotting loosehead, who was lubricating our continuity when it was threatened with being closed down. They made progress until Mike Ross (only one tackle the whole game) took it forward, but in the same instant slowed it down. The slow ball meant that Argentina could get numbers out to catch Zebo and Gilroy down the left-hand side.

The direction was changed yet again but this time the pace was upped as Ireland sensed blood. Sexton assessed the situation quickly – he saw there was a big openside available to him but saw Fernandez-Lobbe gesticulate to the surrounding players to come blind-side – he had read that Sexton who was standing 10 metres behind the ruck was going to attack the blind-side again.

Murray saw it too at the very last second and he wasn't quick enough to swivel and pass and so he executed a wondrous reverse flick which caught Sexton at full stride and his flat pass across two out-stretched sets of hands to Zebo right on the touchline told you that Ireland were back in business offensively. Sexton had given exactly the same sort of pass to Brian O'Driscoll last season with exactly the same sort of result.

Lest it be forgotten, and it was ringing in my ears as the match was ending, that Sexton was attacking the line and taking the ball flat – he did no such thing and he was standing deeper than I have seen him stand at this level – yet his performance did not suffer and his excellence shone throughout in a match that Ireland really needed him to perform in.

Five minutes in to the second half the lead-up to Bowe's try, from a Sexton chip, showed that Ireland still depend on set-piece plays to get over the line.

Off solid scrum, which you can never be sure of against Argentina, Murray looped a straight-running D'Arcy – Argentina had to check and the ball eventually got to Sexton again after Keith Earls had run straight and cut the line. This meant that Argentina had to check twice and the integrity of the line was compromised. Sexton took the ball and played that inside pass which was very prevalent yesterday to Gilroy. He hopped with frustration when the debutant didn't give it back to him as the line was yawning. He played the percentages when he knew that Argentina were committed and like he did in Twickenham years ago, sent Bowe to the line with a deliciously placed chip ahead. The kind bounces are included in the package.

It was good to see Ireland use their wings and bring them into the line at every opportunity. The question that has to be asked was why weren't they doing it two Saturdays ago? They also were pretty adept at generating quick ball at the breakdown despite Argentine intransigence. Against South Africa it was next day delivery in a nano-second world, yesterday the presentation and the speed were where they should have been all along.

Kidney survives and Ireland will have a favourable (no guarantees) draw at the World Cup shortly.

Santiago Phelan has only won one match in 10 games – I'm not sure if the Argie press will be on his case as much as the press here have been on Kidney's.

Congratulations to all on a job well done when the pressure was really on.

Sunday Indo Sport

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