Wednesday 24 January 2018

Irish plan went from vague to uncertain

Meek play on pitch matched by sorry sight of empty seats surrounding it, writes John O'Brien

AS much as we grow to love them, stadiums don't possess mystical powers that sweep the teams that inhabit them to irrepressible glory.

The path to victory isn't drawn on an architect's table or contained in the particular arrangement of concrete stanchions or plastic seating. The team always sets the tone and dictates the atmosphere, never the other way around. The great actors will always grace even the most humble stages.

The problem yesterday was that all the humility lay with the actors rather than the venue. From the start there was a meekness and sense of deference about Ireland that made them seem entirely uncomfortable with their script. There was the odd crushing hit but nowhere near enough of them. And the odd flash of inventiveness but nothing dazzlingly creative. The overall plan seemed to fall somewhere between those two stools, vague and uncertain.

They limped along, flat and insipid, for the majority of the game. And then, with little more than 10 minutes remaining, they exploded into life. It was a curious and perplexing performance. Last month the Ireland football team did something similar against Russia, nearly pulling something out of the fire when their cause had seemed hopeless. Perhaps it is something that lies deep in the national sporting psyche.

So another Irish homecoming, another bracing defeat. Their football brethren invited Argentina here a couple of months ago and were handed a 1-0 defeat as well as a lesson in how to play the game properly. The most alarming aspect of yesterday's reverse was that it had been the South African players, at the end of a long season, who had faced the stern questions about their stomach for a battle. No one had thought to question Ireland's.

A high-tempo finish couldn't disguise the fact that for a team, whose season is just swinging into gear, this was a sub-standard performance and poor value for those who had shelled out €150 for the privilege of attending two games. Only the most naive attend games always expecting a classic for the ages. But the occasion demanded an aggressive and foot-sure approach from the home team, not the nervy, muted display they produced.

In truth the occasion, like the game itself, felt strange. For the IRFU's marketing game it was a hard sell. You could pitch up outside the ground an hour before kick-off and take your pick of available parking spots just across the road. And although Philip Browne had wisely sign-posted the fact that the game wasn't sold out during the week, the blocks of empty spaces around the ground still shocked the senses. No matter how bad things became on the field, the Union had already suffered its most embarrassing defeat.

There was a flatness to the day that no amount of artificial bluster could remedy. They beat their infernal drums on the sideline and Irish rugby coming home was their predictable theme. It was carried in giant lettering onto the field before the game and bellowed ceaselessly over the tannoy to a half-filled, half-interested stadium. President McAleese stepped out to greet the teams and was barely noticed. Those raucous February days in 2007 when France and England were welcomed to Croke Park suddenly began to feel old and dreamy.

If the occasion couldn't get Ireland going, then you wondered what could? They had a three-Test losing run to eradicate, a fine recent record against South Africa to uphold, any amount of reasons to take a game to a team that was shorn of so much quality and, it was assumed, the heart to fight. And when Brian O'Driscoll charged into Gio Aplon near the South African line with 10 minutes gone it seemed that finally, thanks inevitably to the captain, Ireland would finally get going.

O'Driscoll was penalised for his exuberance in trying to win the ball, but that didn't seem to matter as much as the signal of intent he had sent to his colleagues. But the message got lost somewhere in delivery. When Eoin Reddan's attempted pass fell to Juan Smith a few minutes later, the lock forward bore the surprised grin of a pauper who had caught a €50 note in a gentle breeze. Rob Kearney made the ground but couldn't make the tackle.

The game gradually drifted from Ireland's grasp the longer it went on. The physical intensity South Africa would bring was blindingly obvious, yet they still struggled to cope, particularly with the barn-storming charges of Tendai Mtawarira that set the tone for his team. The platform Ireland enjoyed from the line-out when they beat South Africa in the Croke Park fog 12 months ago was reversed. With no set-piece platform, the side struggled for rhythm and confidence.

The appalling vista was that a crowd, already at loggerheads with those who govern the sport, might suddenly turn on their misfiring team too. But as grim as things became they remained patient and respectful, hoping against hope that somebody would find inspiration somewhere and light up a quiet stadium. Pat Lambie should have buried them with a quarter of the game remaining but screwed his penalty badly wide and let the home team off the hook.

Still they shrugged off that mishap shortly afterwards when Aplon surged through the gap between Donncha O'Callaghan and Kearney for the softest of tries under the posts. That pushed their lead to 14 and virtually put the game beyond Ireland's grasp. As the stadium began to empty further, you couldn't have suggested it was anything less than Ireland deserved.

Declan Kidney then began to summon the changes. Nothing more than cosmetic surgery, you figured. Stringer for Reddan, O'Gara for Sexton. The usual old heads. But something changed suddenly, a switch flicked in Irish heads. O'Gara's chip across field for Bowe to gather and score -- where have we seen that before? -- and suddenly they were in full flow, bearing down on a ragged-looking South Africa.

It wasn't enough in the end, of course. Not even enough to put a gloss on what was largely a lifeless and disappointing day for this Irish team and Irish rugby in general. The masses trooped off dejectedly in the end, warmed in part due to the thrilling final moments and in part because of the announcer's cheerful parting shot that the bar would stay open for another hour.

Sunday Independent

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