THE post-match analysis will not make pretty viewing for the vast majority of those involved in yesterday’s limp opening display against the Maori All Blacks. Not quite the Hamilton horrow show, but not far off it.
The kicking was loose, the broken field tackling was shoddy, with far too many missed tackles leading to soft tries being conceded in that match-determining second quarter.
The first quarter had been a different story. Although the early signs of a skill differential in ball-handling ability between the sides was marked, the opening quarter was shared – and, despite close to a 75/25 breakdown in possession to the Maori All Blacks, somehow we were ahead (10-8) after 21 minutes.
In the main, it was a result of exceptional line speed on the other side of the ball, with Bundee Aki very much the fulcrum to that aggressive and effective defensive effort.
The skipper for the day was also at the end of the pre-rehearsed move involving our best players on an otherwise poor opening game, when Nick Timoney and Gavin Coombes combined for Aki to cross next to the posts. Instead of kicking on from there, it was all downhill to the break.
We lacked patience in possession, hence our inability to protect the ball. We may not enjoy the principle of ‘going through the phases’, but it is essential in terms of choosing the moment to strike further out, when creating a mismatch.
Ciarán Frawley is a good footballer but too much was expected of him when stepping up to that level in the pivotal position against the Maoris.
Craig Casey, too, had a mixed bag of a performance, so at half-back there was little sense of control and direction. But the nub of the problem was exposed particularly in the opening half, especially in the second quarter.
The principle behind these two extra midweek games is positive, with both coaching teams benefiting from the opportunity to trial players at a level above domestic but below international.
Under Andy Farrell and Joe Schmidt before him, Irish rugby at the highest level is, arguably, as good right now as it has ever been.
And while we accept that the World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling has still to be broken, it is only through experiences like this that the net can be widened and pool deepened.
The message from yesterday was of a group wanting to do better, but hit with the harsh reality of what it takes to get to that level.
We are short on cover in the tight-five, irrespective of who might be called in to cover for Iain Henderson and possibly Cian Healy, plus Jeremy Loughman, now as well.
The first Test is only a couple of days away, and already our resources in the front and second rows are threadbare. I suspect we may see one or two of the established back-row players being pressed into moving up a row as the series progresses and injuries continue to take their toll.
Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be the first-choice centres, with Aki the definitive back-up. Beyond that, only Coombes, and possibly Timoney, suggested any hint as to squad involvement for the main event. Ryan Baird’s contribution was minimal but he is another, like Tadhg Beirne, who offers back-five versatility.
The only real decision of consequence is behind the scrum, where one from Keith Earls, Jimmy O’Brien and Jordan Larmour will be chosen to replace the unavailable Mack Hansen.
None of yesterday’s back-three furthered their case for first-up selection – and, while he is the outsider of the three, my call, and it would be a risk, would be to go with the game-breaker Larmour.
The halves, needless to say, pick themselves with Conor Murray and Joey Carbery the likely back-up to the Leinster duo.
Neither Munster player could be described as being in form, with Carbery again looking out of sorts in his limited time on. As declared in advance by Farrell the journey to Paris began in earnest yesterday.
To say it was a less than auspicious start would be an understatement.
A different team entirely will take the field in Auckland – and I expect the performance to reflect that, irrespective of the undoubted quality of the opposition.
But, and it’s a very relevant but, we are nowhere near where we want to be in terms of strength in depth going forward.