Drab fare highlights worrying reliance on stars
It was deja vu at a half- empty Murrayfield on Saturday when an Irish team in preparation for the World Cup were out-thought, outplayed and outmuscled by a Scottish team that seemed sharper in every respect.
The good news was that instead of Eddie O'Sullivan's first-choice team four years ago, this time around it was Declan Kidney's second string. In fact the pack that started the game did not have one player with pretensions to a Test starting spot -- rather, a seat on the plane to New Zealand was the limit of their ambitions.
The match was typical of the games between these two sides and was an interesting contest, unless you had watched New Zealand and Australia over your bacon and eggs. The match south of the equator was miles away and not just in distance from the decidedly average, error-strewn performance in the afternoon.
There was some good news. Rob Kearney, Tomas O'Leary and Jerry Flannery all came through their first physical test, although they may not have passed the litmus test of international standard. Flannery will surely play a full game next week.
Kearney also looked okay, although he never delivered a telling thrust. To be fair, Ireland were starved of ball by a Scottish eight that showed the ability to deliver continuous phases and owned vast tracts of territory. The result was that while still exhibiting all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, they created six half-chances. In contrast, Ireland rarely threatened the 22-metre, let alone the try line.
The Irish back play, even allowing for the shortage of possession, was pedestrian, while in defence, the big Scottish backs seem to make ground at will. The inevitable happened in the dying minutes when a common-or- garden backline move opened the Irish midfield for the decisive try.
Ireland's hopes of reaching the knockout stages depend on the fitness of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.
However, even with the stars in midfield, there is a real doubt that it will function with O'Leary at No 9. He is busy, athletic and brave, but he is not a scrum-half and if Kidney does not give Conor Murray a start, then he will be guilty of conservatism and lack of vision. When Isaac Boss arrived, there was no improvement as the Leinster No 9 is the worst passer of all the contenders. Peter Stringer proved that the speed of pass determines the space available to the outside backs. We ignore that lesson at our peril.
The modern game has become more dynamic, although you would not have noticed watching the lacklustre Irish pack. There was not a single ball-carrier in the eight. Sean O'Brien looks like a colossus when set against these rivals. The game simply proved the old O'Sullivan adage, that Ireland need all their players fit and well to compete.
The scrum was another disaster and made a mockery of the so-called 17/13 or 16/14 breakdown depending on whether Kidney takes four or five props to the World Cup. Ireland have two Test-standard props and the other two or three selected will be merely makeweights for the minor games.
The urge for Kidney to keep his star players in cotton wool will be balanced by the need to get them match fit.
Saturday's result has to be viewed in the light that perhaps only three front-rank players were involved. However, it gave a clear insight into what could happen if key players were unavailable. The Italy match would take on a whole new aspect if Saturday's front-row, back-row or midfield were involved.
The accepted wisdom was that Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble had good performances. On the contrary, they simply looked busy when all around them lacked focus. Fitzgerald continues to be an enigma. He is clearly a fine footballer, yet his kicking game varied enormously. One attempt almost ended in a seven-point give-away and he did not pose a threat in attack, despite the ball running his way.
In contrast Trimble had to look for work, which he did in his determined way. However, while he is big, strong and quick, he is still relatively unsubtle. He did badly for the Scottish try -- in covering across at full speed, he opened himself up for the side-step. A better defender would have slowed and offered the opponent the outside as the only option.
This match must be seen in context as a work in progress. But Ireland must show some improvement in Bordeaux or the O'Sullivan nightmare might be on the cards.