Saturday 24 February 2018

George Hook: It's hard to see where Ireland can win this match

George Hook

George Hook

Incredible. Ireland face Armageddon and the team selected is, with one exception, the side that capitulated to South Africa and looks incapable of making a line break, let alone score a try.

The addition of Craig Gilroy will make little difference when the midfield of Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls is so patently ineffective. The new cap will discover that he will be receiving the ball behind the advantage line and facing a forest of defenders.

Last week, numbers 10, 12 and 13 understood angle, alignment and depth and made space for the wings. Fiji were hardly world-class defenders but the skills expressed by the Ulster youngsters would have guaranteed at least a line break against any team in the world.

Eddie O'Sullivan, when backs coach at Connacht, delivered five line breaks against the then world champions, Australia. The province did not win but they showed what quality coaching could do.

Coaching or not, the Irish players are showing a remarkable lack of rugby sense. If the fly-half stands deep and the midfield and full-back do not run lines to hold defenders, then failure is pre-ordained. Those are transition year principles and it is high time that the players recognised the problem.

To be fair, losing the team's five best players in key positions is a blow with which any nation would struggle to cope. Imagine New Zealand without Israel Dagg, Ma'a Nonu, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock? Argentina have also had their injury problems but their talent pool is deeper. At tighthead, only the Pumas could suffer the loss of the outstanding Juan Figallo and retain a potent scrum.

Man for man, the visitors' eight looks a stronger unit. There is now a real worry about Mike Ross. He has looked below-par all season and his performance last week in Limerick would be a cause for real concern, were it not for Michael Bent. The manner of his arrival into the Ireland squad may have been flawed, but he looks as if he can hold up a scrum.

If Jamie Heaslip is going to deliver a captain's performance, which he patently did not against Fiji, then today is the day. He needs to lead and front up the Irish back-row against the outstanding unit of Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. I will not be holding my breath.

It is hard to see where Ireland can win this match. The South Africa game showed that the self-same eight are vulnerable against big strong packs. If golfers drive for show and putt for dough then the forwards definitely are the money winners in rugby.

However, the Pumas are now much more than a grizzled set of close-quarter grapplers. There is evidence of Graham Henry's work with the team in the technical skills of offloading and continuity. They destroyed Wales in that area and even allowing for the poor morale in the Principality, does anybody suggest that this Irish team could do the same in Cardiff?

Declan Kidney is now on the horns of a dilemma. This match is vital to his own and his country's interest. He needs a contract extension and Ireland need to stay in the top eight of the world rankings. Given the machinations of the rankings, a loss will consign Ireland to the bargain basement of rugby irrespective of results elsewhere. That would mark the death knell of the coach's career.

Can Ireland win? Absolutely, but it will require something very different from two weeks ago. Ross and/or Bent must hold the scrum, Heaslip must play like an international with ball in hand, and the midfield must play the game on the advantage line.

Sadly, I believe that only the backline has the talent to change. The pack, shorn of the physicality of Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien, will be unable to compete in the tight with the knock-on effect on the back play.

The captain has not been a dominant force for over two years and seems incapable of delivering a performance of power and class that was so evident at 20 when he rivalled the great Jerome Kaino of New Zealand as the best young back-row in world rugby.

I wonder in his time alone if he thinks of the mantle he has inherited. History is not his bag, but we remember Des O'Brien, Ronnie Kavanagh, Ken Goodall and others, who never gave less than their best in an Irish shirt.

Hope springs eternal, and once upon a time Jonathan Sexton could fashion a win for province and country with a minority share of possession. The time has come to take control as he did so famously against Northampton. Then as now he could infuse passion and strength in players around him.

If he fails to do so, he may hear the megaphone like the boat on the Serpentine in London: "Come in No 10, your time is up." Failure will mean that yet again Ireland's chances of making the knockout stages of the World Cup will be slim.

The Aviva could be a gloomy place around 4.0 today.

Irish Independent

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