Sunday 17 December 2017

George Hook: O'Driscoll's sad decline turning into a tragedy

Peter O'Mahony, Ireland, is tackled by Tevita Kuridrani (No. 13), of Australia.
Peter O'Mahony, Ireland, is tackled by Tevita Kuridrani (No. 13), of Australia.

Saturday's match asked serious questions about this Ireland team and its management. It also shattered some comfortable illusions.

When Joe Schmidt was appointed, supporters were assured by media experts that a new dawn was approaching. We ignored the evidence of the last two years.

Had Declan Kidney survived and been in charge, we would have cast our minds back nine months and reviewed the performance of this team in the Six Nations. Instead we became fans rather than analysts and allowed our hopes and dreams to overcome our rational thinking.

The questions after Saturday are legion, and next weekend's contest against the All Blacks will not be about performance as much as survival.

Whose plan was it to kick to Israel Folau? The Irish kicking against Samoa was abysmal; against Australia it was infinitely worse. It is beyond belief that in the pre-match discussions the question of kicking to a man that Conor O'Shea described as a freaktalent wasn't raised. Folau had been a huge success in rugby league and – to a lesser extent – Aussie Rules, and such are his fielding talents that had he been born in Kerry 70 years ago, Mick O'Connell would never have worn the green and gold.

But we kicked to Folau. We kicked without plan or direction. The arrival of substitutes Conor Murray and Ian Madigan, who surely must have been given direction by the coach, continued the shambles to an even greater degree.

Schmidt's interview last week rightly earned him praise. This week his suggestion that "we still didn't kick as well as we need to", was a monstrous understatement.


To compound the problem, there was a huge absence of follow-up by chasing players, in contrast to the Wallabies, who all too often caught the Irish player in possession.

Who is in charge of developing a defensive system for Ireland? According to the match programme, Les Kiss is the defence coach. Since his arrival, Ireland have looked porous but in successive weeks they now look to be without any cohesive policy.

Again, Brian O'Driscoll made a basic error – but this time it was not against hapless Samoans, and the result was seven points. Three of the four Wallaby tries were the result of errors by defenders; all evening Irish defenders simply sat back and allowed opponents to run at them.

In contrast, space was at a premium when Ireland had the ball as the Wallabies rapidly closed it down.

Ireland languish in the world rankings because they do not defend like the rest of the world.

The expected Irish dominance at scrum time never materialised. James Slipper and Sekope Kepu are average international props but they looked like world beaters against an Irish front-row. Ewen McKenzie has found a way to make his scrum competitive while we continue to live in cloud cuckoo land, thinking we have a world-class set-piece.

Who considered Stephen Archer a scrummager of international standard? Archer has looked distinctly uncomfortable for Munster this season where he is not even first-choice tighthead.

Why do we depend so much on Sean O'Brien? The Irish plan seemed to be to give the ball to him and expect him to bash his way through the defensive line. It was absolutely to no avail and he was unceremoniously cut down by a team that had done its homework.

The 'Tullow Tank' is now in danger of becoming a parody unless he is used for his other talents other than his beef. He has more to offer and Saturday more than ever convinced me that his future lies on the blindside.

If, as is likely, he goes to France it will be interesting to see where the inventive French use him.

Who advised O'Driscoll to play for one more season? It will be the biggest tragedy in Irish rugby history if he is remembered for the manner of his leaving rather than the days of his pomp.

On Saturday, he cut a Roy Keane-like figure. He looked frustrated at his own inability to perform as he wished, and frustrated that those around him were not up to the standard of former team-mates.

His defence, once so brave and unyielding, is now below par. He was responsible for an Australian try by leaving space outside and later his attempted tackle on Folau was contemptuously brushed aside.

Saturday's referee had a problem with O'Driscoll's work at the breakdown on the Lions tour. This time around we yearned for the great man to do something similar as Ireland were cleaned out on the ground by Michael Hooper. Sadly the greatest player of his generation was anonymous.

Next Sunday is not about beating the All Blacks or giving a performance or staring down the Haka. There have been too many embarrassing afternoons in matches against the Kiwis.

Schmidt must somehow unearth pride, physical endeavour and organisation from a group of men who appear to have lost their way.

By George Hook

Irish Independent

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