Wednesday 21 March 2018

Eagles expose the same old Ireland flaws


Ireland’s Ian Madigan fields the ball under pressure from USA’s Scott Lavalla during Saturday’s game in Houston
Ireland’s Ian Madigan fields the ball under pressure from USA’s Scott Lavalla during Saturday’s game in Houston
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THIS was supposed to be a new beginning, but, in the end, there was a worrying familiarity to Ireland's struggles as they just denied the US Eagles a piece of history in front of a record home crowd.

THIS was supposed to be a new beginning, but, in the end, there was a worrying familiarity to Ireland's struggles as they just denied the US Eagles a piece of history in front of a record home crowd.

There were echoes of Murrayfield in particular, as new coach Joe Schmidt watched from the BBVA Stadium stands and an Ireland side, dogged by some recognisable issues, laboured against lesser opposition.

A malfunctioning line-out, an inability to take chances to give themselves breathing space and struggles at the breakdown meant that Les Kiss's side kept the Americans in touch right to the death.

But, unlike Edinburgh, when Paddy Jackson's radar was off, Ian Madigan kept his cool in his first start at out-half and kicked five from six to deliver a victory, the merits of which will only become apparent in time.

The USA are no Scotland, but nor was this Irish team of the calibre that took to the field in February.

Five players – Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding, Tommy O'Donnell, Mike Sherry and Jamie Hagan – made debuts, while three others were making their first starts for their country.

The team that closed out the win had just 89 caps between them going into Saturday's game and 30 of those were Tom Court's. That they weathered the storm in the face of oppressive heat, an increasingly noisy crowd, fuelled by belief and ample supplies of alcohol, and a US team who gave everything they had in a massively physical display, was ultimately impressive.

Peter O'Mahony was immense as captain, while Kiss was delighted that some unheralded internationals – Devin Toner, Paul Marshall and Felix Jones – made huge plays at crucial stages, as Ireland preserved their three-point lead and held on.

But, Ireland knew that it should not have been that close. Their scrum was utterly dominant, but when Madigan found touch from the first-half penalties the scrum generated, the timing in the line-out was off and opportunities went astray.

The backline showed signs of clicking with their lively fly-half calling the tune, but when they did find a way through early in the second half when Isaac Boss sent Fergus McFadden through a gap, the Leinster man's pass slipped out of Henshaw's grasp.

The line was at his mercy, a debut try went abegging and, if he had touched down and Madigan had knocked over an easy conversion, Ireland would have led 19-6, and there would have been no way back for the Americans.

Instead, the hosts grew increasingly confident and, in turn, dominant, despite losing captain Todd Clever to the sin-bin for a tip-tackle on Toner. They were just three points down with 14 minutes remaining after Chris Wyles' fourth penalty.

Ireland held out, however, and the grand finale the American promoters, who almost sold out the home of Houston Dynamo, were looking for never materialised.

"In all honesty, that was the championship minutes for us," Kiss said. "We knew that a tough moment would come and that we would have to live through it.

"If we got a score early, we might have just been able to break that down a bit, but they were very good at the breakdown, that last 10 minutes just showed that we had the composure and the bottle not to lose. We held ourselves together and did not lose track of what we were there for."


Is a 15-12 win over the States good enough, though? This team was young, but man-for-man there was only one US player – blindside Samu Manoa – who would get into the Irish team.

Kiss admitted that he'd have liked more, but he was satisfied with a first win on his watch. A first defeat to the States would have been a major blot on his copybook and a nightmare start for Schmidt who takes a more hands-on role this week in Toronto.

"When you go away in these conditions; when you've got five new caps; when you have 119 caps against 285 and when you're playing a USA team that has improved, it is probably not surprising that there were moments that it could have gone away from us," he said.

"I thought there were some real positives there, it's 15-12, it's a win, but would we have liked to have taken another score? Absolutely."

Ireland started strongly with Henshaw prominent early on and O'Mahony leading from the front. While the lineout problems were in evidence from the off, so was the scrum dominance and Mike Ross tormented Shawn Pittman, earning the penalty that saw Madigan kick his first international points and make it 3-0.

He doubled that lead after 17 minutes, but the Americans showed they weren't just there to make up the numbers when winger Luke Hume capitalised on turnover ball, chipping over the Irish cover and beating Henshaw to the bounce, only for Olding and Boss to scramble to Ireland's rescue. The US rumbled and won a penalty, which Wyles converted.

Madigan restored the six-point lead, but the incredible Manoa – who had earlier welcomed O'Mahony to the States with a monstrous hit – broke two tackles and the scrambling Irish defenders infringed for Wyles to keep the USA in touch.

Kicks from Madigan either side of half-time meant Ireland led 15-6, but that Henshaw drop and some Irish indiscipline saw Wyles draw his team to within three points with 14 minutes to go, despite Clever's moment of madness.

Kiss emptied his bench, his opposite number Mike Tolkin didn't and that proved the difference as the crowd noise grew and the Irish showed commendable composure.

Marshall's snipe provided relief, before Jones stopped Taku Ngwenya as he was about to take off, winning a penalty from the breakdown.

Madigan missed it, his only wayward kick of the night, but used up valuable time and when Toner brilliantly collected the restart under huge pressure, Ireland could kick to touch and escape Houston relieved.

The Americans embarked on a lap of honour, while Ireland retreated to the dressing room. It told its own story.

This tour is about experience and Kiss's young side got one on Saturday night. Now, let's see if they can learn from it.

USA – C Wyles; L Hume (S Kelly 58), J Paterson, A Suniula, T Ngwenya; T L'Estrange, M Petri; S Pittman, C Biller, E Fry, B Doyle (P Dahl 12-26, blood), L Stanfill; S Manoa, S LaValla, T Clever (capt).

IRELAND – R Henshaw; F McFadden (F Jones 36-40, blood), D Cave, S Olding, S Zebo (F Jones 75); I Madigan, I Boss (P Marshall 72); D Kilcoyne (T Court 58), R Strauss (M Sherry 77), M Ross (J Hagan 53); M McCarthy (D Tuohy 75), D Toner; I Henderson (T O'Donnell 75), C Henry (T O'Donnell 52-58, blood), P O'Mahony (capt).

REF – F Pastrana (Argentina)

Irish Independent

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