Sunday 21 January 2018

It's time to let loose mean green machine

Hugh Farrelly in Christchurch

IN June 1998, new coach Warren Gatland brought his Ireland squad to South Africa to take on the world champions in a two-Test series.

It was a daunting assignment. Not only were the Springboks rich in quality (Percy Montgomery, Joost van der Westhuizen, Adrian Garvey, Mark Andrews), they were also high on aggression (Pieter Muller, James Dalton, Krynauw Otto, Gary Teichmann).

Meanwhile, Ireland were staggering towards the end of a decade when, bar a couple of upsets against England in 1993 and 1994 and some decent results in Cardiff, they had been largely abject.

Gatland had taken over a demoralised group a few months earlier following the shambolic reign of Brian Ashton (or 'Mr Shingles' as he was dubbed in some circles after his abrupt departure), and his first goal was to restore their spirit -- something he achieved immediately with a remarkable performance in Paris, narrowly missing out on a first win in 26 years.

By the time they got to South Africa, Ireland were a pretty unified bunch, with an excellent captain in Paddy Johns, but in the first Test in Bloemfontein, Gatland's side were easily dismissed 37-13 (Stefan Terblanche scoring four tries on his debut).

With the South Africans expected to improve in the second Test, which was scheduled for the Afrikaner citadel of Loftus Versfeld at altitude in Pretoria, the Irish knew what was coming and steeled themselves accordingly.

They lost by a bigger margin (33-0) than the previous week, but it is safe to say they did not go down without a fight in what became known as 'The Battle of Pretoria'. Johns was the epitome of physical resistance and refused to stand for any roughhouse tactics from the home side with his team-mates backing him up (including fellow 'tough hombres' Trevor Brennan and Peter Clohessy off the bench).

The Springboks took severe umbrage at such Irish gumption and, following a frosty post-match reception when the Irish were largely ignored as the South Africans spoke in Afrikaans among themselves, Keith Wood led the squad in a thumping rendition of 'Long Way From Clare To Here' in final act of defiance.

Brian O'Driscoll did not come onto the international scene until the following year, but he is in the Johns role heading into Saturday's second Test in Lancaster Park.

Ireland were completely outclassed in the first Test and, given their injury issues before and during this tour, allied to the excellence of the world champions, it is very likely that the Irish could fall behind a superior All Blacks side again this weekend.

territory

But, as well as correcting some tactical issues -- greater use of rush defence, use of the boot to secure territory without feeding the All Blacks back three, eradicating turnovers -- there is a dire need for the Irish to get a bit shirty on Saturday.

Beefing up the team will help. Kevin McLaughlin brings heft and willingness to every side he plays for, going back to the days when he was running around Belfield for UCD, and, although Simon Zebo definitely has a talent to be nurtured, Andrew Trimble is a more physical and experienced presence out wide, where Ireland were exposed last weekend.

While Declan Fitzpatrick can take encouragement from a doughty debut, Mike Ross returning to the front-row will help, despite concerns over his match fitness.

There were arguments for bringing a highly-motivated Donncha O'Callaghan into the second-row (Dan Tuohy is a good player, but looked off the pace in Eden Park) and for Declan Kidney to go with Eoin Reddan at scrum-half, which would have seen six of Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning backline in situ.

However, as important as tactics and personnel this weekend, is attitude. There has been a lot of mockery this week with Kidney and his squad taking it in the neck and, as forwards coach Gert Smal suggested a few days ago, maybe it is time to get angry.

Not with cheap shots, but by getting in the All Blacks faces, rattling, nagging and irritating them and using the likes of O'Callaghan and Peter O'Mahony off the bench to keep the heat on. Just as in 1998, Ireland may be outmatched against the world champions, but they are still capable of making a statement. Kidney has brought in a bit of bulk, it would be good to see some bolshiness to go with it.

Irish Independent

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