Wednesday 13 December 2017

Kidney facing a must-win game in a no-win situation

Eddie O'Sullivan

"If I'd a cleared the trees and drove the green, it woulda been a great tee shot!"

It may be half a century old, but Sam Snead's sarcasm captures the pointlessness of living in a world of ifs, buts and maybes. You live by the bottom line in professional sport and, mostly, that bottom line is located at the top of the page.

So there can be no comfort for Ireland in the arithmetic of last Saturday's loss to a depleted Springboks team. True, they had them on the ropes for the closing 10 minutes. True, too, only the width of a post prevented Ronan O'Gara from securing an unlikely draw.

But Ireland lost a game that was clearly there to be won in the Aviva. And, for Declan Kidney, that late rally will only have compounded the sense of an opportunity spurned. Hence, they face a must-win game in a no-win situation today.

Ireland find themselves on a bad losing run and, set against a wounding backdrop of empty seats and ripped jerseys, the whole dynamic of last weekend's house-warming in Lansdowne Road seemed to reek with negativity. Players and management aren't robots. They know they've a job on their hands in terms of public relations and, accordingly, this will have felt like a long week for all concerned.


They will beat Samoa today, of that I have little doubt. But whether they can do so with sufficient ambition and calm authority to convince people that next weekend's joust with the All Blacks can have a truly serious competitive edge is very much open to debate.

The difficulty for Declan and the players is that nothing they do today will really put them back in the credit zone. They know that too. After all that's gone before in recent seasons, victories over tier-two nations don't really cut the mustard for the Irish rugby public anymore.

This knowledge will have added to their frustration driving away from the Aviva last Saturday night. Because they find themselves in a strange place now, victims essentially of their own high standards.

The Samoa game was always going to be Declan's only November opportunity to experiment and it's good to see that circumstance haven't discouraged him from following that road.

He's picked a good, reasonably adventurous team and I imagine a real priority this week will have been ironing out the set-piece woes that impeded Ireland against South Africa. Maybe the most spectacular implosion was in the line-out and it's a fact of life when that happens that the thrower comes under intense scrutiny.

Accordingly, Rory Best took most of the heat this week but I believe that any fair assessment of Ireland's line-out last Saturday has to factor in the extraordinary ability -- in both offence and defence -- of Victor Matfield. The Springbok captain is one of the best second-rows in world rugby and he applied a level of pressure on Ireland's line-out targets that few other teams in the world could replicate.

The scrum, however, is an entirely different matter. Accepting that the Boks fielded an enormous front five, Ireland continue to have too many torrid days in this department. Even though it could be argued that referee Nigel Owens was somewhat lenient with Ireland in his adjudication of the scrum, Tony Buckley had a difficult day before going off with injury. Buckley, in his defence, was up against Tendai Mtawarira, who demolished the Lions scrum in the first Test last year.

Tony isn't the first prop to be put under pressure by 'The Beast'. Still, the game highlighted yet again the debt of gratitude Irish rugby owes John Hayes, a fact highlighted once more today by Bull's selection in the front row.

You can only respect Declan's honest admission that he got the game-plan wrong last Saturday and didn't factor in a possible adjustment for the weather. It was obvious that Ireland were intent on moving the ball as much as possible away from the fearsome South African pack. Even in the rain, that strategy made sense. It seemed to me that the team just over-elaborated.

I also felt that they might have got some change out of focusing their point of attack a little more regularly on the Springbok outside centre, Zane Kirchner. He was playing his first game at No 13 and had to be vulnerable, a la Brian Habana, who we targeted with success in the 2006 Autumn Series when the great winger was given that same shirt.

Defence was maybe the only positive of Ireland's display last Saturday. Tactically, they seemed very aware of where South Africa wanted to attack and, time and again, the Springbok ball-carrier was hit simultaneously by two Irish tacklers.

This meant that South Africa got very little quick ruck ball, which explained why they were unable to convert a huge volume of possession into scores.

So Ireland stayed in the game throughout, despite it being a contest they should probably have lost by a substantial score.

They did get some assistance too from the South African coach, Peter de Villiers. His substitution of Morné Steyn with Patrick Lambie beggared belief. Steyn was running the game superbly and kicking penalties like a metronome. What was De Villiers thinking springing a 20-year-old, uncapped fly-half into a game that was far from securely won with roughly 20 minutes remaining?

Lambie's first contribution to the game was to miss a kick in front of the posts, a kick Steyn would have slotted with his eyes closed. It might easily have cost South Africa the game and -- face it -- if they had lost to Ireland, or even drawn, De Villiers' substitution of Steyn would have become a huge talking point.

I don't expect either scrum or line-out to be an issue for Ireland today. The Samoan set-piece is nowhere near the strength of the Springboks' and plenty of quality possession should give Ireland a good attacking platform. As such, I feel sure that we'll see tries, especially with Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe, David Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald itching to make line-breaks.

Samoa will run the ball, too. That's their tradition and Ireland's defence will need to replicate the levels of concentration and efficiency that kept them alive last weekend. I don't doubt that that will happen.

Beyond that, we should be able to control the pace and tempo of the game through the best tactical kicker in the world, ROG.

I expect him to pin the Samoans in their own half, forcing them to run out from deep. That is where Ireland will get the opportunity to turn them over and capitalise on errors. That's always a cast-iron strategy when playing against the Pacific Island nations and has worked very effectively for Ireland on previous occasions.

So expect a comprehensive win today, but no great garlands for the team. This game is, essentially, about attitude now and the right body language.

To borrow another Sam Snead line from the day he played golf with Dwight D Eisenhower:

"Put your ass into the ball, Mr President!"

Irish Independent

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