Friday 24 November 2017

Grand notions exposed

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Forgive the cliché but a week certainly is a long time in Six Nations rugby. From the highs of Cardiff to the lows of Dublin in eight days. If you're only as good as your last game then on Sunday, against a much better-equipped English juggernaut, that last game was poor in the extreme.

It brings up that issue again of consistency. Save for 2009, Irish rugby at the highest level continues on an almighty roller coaster.

Declan Kidney needs little reminding as to what his legacy will be unless we string together a run of wins built on performances of substance.

Against the Welsh we got that, irrespective of the home team's second-half fightback. Indeed Ireland's defensive effort in that second 40 is precisely the type of substance we are looking for.

The English game was a different type of challenge and while a mere six points separated the sides, the gulf was so much more than that.

To say we were hammered 12-6 might seem ridiculous, but the reality is we were. Both teams woke to the same ugly elements. One adapted, the other didn't.

History and tradition in this great fixture has certainly gone full circle. The wind and rain are no longer a welcome leveller for Ireland. The conditions present the same handling difficulties for both teams, but as the number of errors (forced and unforced) reflects, only one side adapted.

It is for that reason that this developing England side under Stuart Lancaster are potential winners of the World Cup they host in 2015. I agree with Lancaster's take that this win in Dublin could well represent the watershed moment.

From an Irish perspective it was hugely disappointing, save for a brief comeback of sorts in the third quarter. Beyond that, the team in white controlled, the team in green chased... and not particularly well at that.

If we are to bounce back at Murrayfield in a game fraught with danger, we need honest self-analysis.

What I find particularly galling from professional players is the amount of reckless and aimless kicking that has become endemic. I was taught very early in my career that in a game where possession is king, the purpose of kicking was that you could regain the ball in a better position – with the only exception being when you were close to your own line.

One of my great St Mary's mentors, Fr Walter Kennedy, would become apoplectic if you put boot to ball in the opposition '22' – and that was at a time when Barry McGann was sliding through the most delicious of try-scoring grubbers for ace poacher Alan 'Dixie' Duggan for club (Lansdowne) and country.

So much kicking in today's game of massed defence is senseless and ill-directed. It is born out of fear rather than intent. It is a blight on the game.

A few seasons back, the IRB insisted on referees penalising any player in front of the kicker moving towards the ball until brought on-side. It had the desired effect. Like all these things – this season the buzz emphasis is on penalty tries awarded early from collapsed scrums – the fad comes and goes, and more's the pity, because that put a definite stop to the malaise of aerial ping pong it. I urge the IRB revisit this crucial area.

Beyond that was an Irish performance reasonable on endeavour but low on quality and precision.

Early injuries to Simon Zebo and Jonny Sexton certainly didn't help, but the root of this losing performance went so much deeper than that.

If pushed to pick out half-decent individual contributions, I would namecheck Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien (despite injury) while Conor Murray was probably the best of a redundant backline.

The fact that Ben Youngs – England's most influential player – dominated the scrum-half battle tells you all you need to know about the day.

Owen Farrell too defied his youth with an all-round display appropriate to the conditions and to the needs of his team.

Whereas England were comfortable with the ball and equally competitive without it, we were ill at ease when compared to the organisation and structure of Cardiff.

Within a week the emphasis has shifted from Grand Slam to getting the better of the Scots as the be all and end all to our season.

For those who like their rugby raw and uninhibited, Sunday's game will have been a delight, but for the vast majority in search of entertainment it was poor fare, a damp squib following the pre-match fireworks.

However, I agree with Kidney's rallying call that the Six Nations championship is still there to be won.

The Murrayfield hurdle has grown appreciably since the weekend. We are back where we were pre-Wales but with injuries and probable suspension for Cian Healy pending.

A bad day for our shop-window side all round.

Irish Independent

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