Saturday 25 January 2020

Heaslip howler brings ranking fears into focus

Ireland face third tier disaster

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Saturday in Thomond Park will be a box-ticking exercise, where a first world nation plays a third world one without doing them the honour of giving out caps.

A week later we come back to Lansdowne Road for a beast of a different nature, when the Pumas arrive.

They flew to France this morning in great spirits after their win over Wales in the Millennium Stadium yesterday. Their record against the French is infinitely better than Ireland's, and they will to go to Lille on Saturday night knowing that a 50 per cent return from their last eight games in this fixture is a pretty good starting point. In our colourful history with Argentina, Saturday week promises to be a worthy addition.

Tomorrow they will replace Ireland in seventh place on the international rankings. You wouldn't be putting even loose change on the Scots doing something dramatic against the All Blacks in Murrayfield this afternoon, but if they managed just that then Ireland's position would be grim. We are now in eighth position, on the edge of the second tier for the pool draw for the 2015 World Cup, which will be made at the end of this international series. Slip into the third band and you're under the cosh before you even travel.

Coincidentally, the last World Cup popped up on the radar yesterday. It is nonsensical to plough into Ireland for losing to South Africa when literally half their first choice pack -- Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris -- were missing, if we thought it significant in Auckland just over a year ago when Australia were short David Pocock and Stephen Moore up front. So if you accept that missing your primary players is a handicap, then of course Ireland were going to struggle yesterday.

What will rattle Declan Kidney's supporters, though, is that his team haven't played more than two decent games back-to-back against world-class opposition since the Grand Slam in 2009. And any analysis of that sequence of games, starting with the win over France at Croke Park when the away side played all the rugby, saw them max out their lucky card.

Moroever, they were in a winning position at half-time yesterday. That was always going to come under threat if the Springboks took an interest in the second half, but what was unforeseen was the opportunity afforded them by Ireland's captain. When Jamie Heaslip lost the plot in trying to stop an advancing South African maul the incline suddenly steepened.

"We were getting good return on our shape and then we came out in the second half and, as captain, I should lead by example," he said afterwards. "And there wasn't a good example set getting yellow carded. I put my hand up straight away when we came in afterwards and said I'm better served on the field than off it."

It was a disaster from which the Boks took immediate advantage. Heaslip is new to the role but experienced enough to know the ramifications of making a mistake like that five metres from your own line. Not a great start for his captaincy career then.

At least Richardt Strauss was typically positive on his debut. And Simon Zebo, on his first game at fullback, looked like he could do some damage if those in front of him had opened the door a bit wider.

And that, too, will worry Kidney fans. Heaslip spoke about Ireland having good shape -- a year ago they were a blob after a few phases -- but it wasn't sexy enough to attract any tourists. The Boks will have gone away thinking how much they would have won by if they had started to play a bit sooner.

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