Friday 22 March 2019

Decision to jettison Maggs creates problem for backline

TO describe today's game against Wales as the equivalent of the RWC joust against Argentina is nonsense. A loss today will be disappointing but will not create the seeding disaster that a loss against the Pumas would have done. However, it will demonstrate whether radical surgery is required to retain Ireland's place in the world rankings or if the holding operation until th

TO describe today's game against Wales as the equivalent of the RWC joust against Argentina is nonsense. A loss today will be disappointing but will not create the seeding disaster that a loss against the Pumas would have done. However, it will demonstrate whether radical surgery is required to retain Ireland's place in the world rankings or if the holding operation until the return of Geordan Murphy and Denis Hickie is enough.

Just when the media pens were dipped in vitriol to criticise the Irish coach for playing it by numbers, Eddie O'Sullivan produced a rabbit out of the hat to show that he has not lost his capacity for positive thinking under pressure. His selection for today's game against Wales demonstrates that O'Sullivan is willing to change his opinion of players.

All season Gary Ella has been singing the praises of Gordon Darcy, but, as with Mike Mullins and David Wallace, the national coach has never been convinced of the quality of the Leinster three-quarter. Forced by injury to select Darcy against France, O'Sullivan has admitted the error of his ways and retained the centre to partner the returning Brian O'Driscoll.

His decision to jettison Kevin Maggs may deny the Bristolian the honour of 60 caps and becoming Ireland's most-capped centre, but it creates a tactical problem for the backline. Although in extremis O'Driscoll played inside centre against New Zealand, this selection smacks of a long term solution and one wonders how the captain will react to the different disciplines required in the channel outside the fly half.

Ireland's primary attacker will be asked to operate in much more restricted space and more importantly be asked to hew the wood and draw the water, by taking the ball up the middle. Using O'Driscoll in that role is a bit like entering the Derby winner for the bumper at Galway.

Few teams in the international arena operate without a work horse at inside centre. Sir Clive Woodward's attempt with Jason Robinson and Will Greenwood never functioned even against Italy and the team relied on counter-attacking for its points.

O'Sullivan made the only change possible in the backline. This week when he reviewed the injury list he knew that he was in a cul de sac of options. Girvan Dempsey did not implode in Paris which guaranteed his retention. In some quarters that was seen as success. One critic even went so far as to describe his unopposed mark in front of the posts as the highlight of the afternoon.

Tom Kiernan was the first attacking full back in Irish rugby. The shrewd Cork player recognised that the new kicking law, prohibiting direct kicks to touch outside the 22, was a boon to a number 15 with the flair to exploit it. Since then, through Tony Ensor, Hugo MacNeill and Jim Staples and others, attacks have been launched from the back either by a decisive entry in to the line or a run from deep. These options are beyond the current Irish full back who has one shot in his armoury - the kick and chase.

Today Wales will use a converted wing in Gareth Thomas and last week the Italians demonstrated how a converted centre like Andreas Masi could cause havoc to even England's secure defence. Is it beyond the wit of our coaches to find a footballer who can run with pace and invention? A fit-again Denis Hickie, who is a better footballer than Masi and a safer catcher than Thomas, might find a whole new career open to him.

Players of international level are not above improvement. Ella clearly had an influence on D'Arcy, just as Matt Williams had on Victor Costello. In his newspaper column, instead of regaling us with tales of his domestic skills and reviews of the local restaurants, Trevor Brennan might explain how Toulouse have changed the "Barnhall Bruiser" into an effective ball-carrying forward with mitts of fly paper. It is a monumental sea change from the destructive tackler and ball dropper of his Irish period.

Maggs may have paid the price for an ineffective defensive performance in Paris, but the whole system may need review. Rugby Union has slavishly accepted the dictates of Rugby League defensive coordinators as if the 13-man game was the sole repository of knowledge. Has Eddie O'Sullivan forgotten that he masterminded a strategy for Connacht that defied Bob Dwyer's Australians in Galway?

The League system leaves vast swathes of pitch unattended out wide on the basis that the attack can be snuffed out inside. Last week Wales succeeded in scoring a try with a two-man overlap of prop forwards! The first French try would have been stopped by every wing in the pre-league defence era. Tyrone Howe and his fellow wings are being hung out to dry by the addiction without amendment to a system from a different game.

The other oval ball game, gridiron, has also influenced the thinking of Rugby devotees. The coach is now clearly king and selection of Paul O'Connell as captain against France demonstrated that strategic thinking is now vested in the grandstand rather than on the field.

Stringer's attempts to vary the angle were either kindergarten in their simplicity or failed totally to find the designated recipient

It is only a short step to radios in helmets of players to receive instructions from the myriad coaches involved in directing the team.

It is a flawed concept that teams can be led from the front by the best player without reference to his ability to initiate change under pressure during a match. Ireland does not have one ball carrier in the pack. Compare the yardage gained, the angles taken and the pace demonstrated by Pelous, Magne, Betson and the other French forwards to the laboured efforts by Ireland.

Peter Stringer's attempts to vary the angle were either kindergarten in their simplicity or failed totally to find the designated recipient. At no time in the match was there an obvious attempt to change the point of attack; not once was there a pick up from the back of the scrum to take the pressure off the half backs, while the only piece of significant continuity play led to the try by Anthony Foley.

Wales have regained their confidence by a return to their natural game. Steve Hansen clearly has a greater sense of tradition than the dour and unimaginative Graham Henry.

O'Sullivan came to power on a wave of innovation and a commitment to attacking back play. It would be a pity if he forgot that in a search for a statistical improvement in Ireland's fortunes.

The Left Wing: Why Irish fans shouldn't lose faith and how Joe Schmidt can turn things around for the World Cup

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