Sport Rugby

Saturday 25 November 2017

Kidney focused on bigger picture

Coach happy despite concerns over O'Leary and scrum

Hugh Farrelly

ANALYSE that. Early-season friendlies are, by definition, hard to get excited about but, Jesus wept, this was hard on the eye.

In terms of endurance viewing, it was like watching back-to-back episodes of 'Judging Amy' or your old fella clipping his toe nails.

Not that it matters, as neither side ran onto the pitch looking to entertain. This was always a means-to-an-end assignment and should be viewed in that perspective.

Thus, it was amusing to watch the Scots greeting their victory uproariously, with a sense of celebration and self-satisfaction that was completely at odds with the reality of the achievement -- the lap of honour was bit over the top, even for the Scots.

A horde of supporters, like teenage girls at a Westlife concert, waited outside the dressing-rooms to acclaim their heroes as though they had won the World Cup itself and not just a soon-to-be-forgotten limbering-up exercise.

Then again, Scottish rugby has had precious little to shout about in recent times so we'll let them off, but the truth is, Andy Robinson's men look to be an extremely limited outfit who play meat-and-veg rugby and struggled to beat a second-string Irish side.

Having attracted local criticism for his decision to play just two warm-up matches, the Scotland coach was in bullish form at the post-game press conference, but Irish counterpart Declan Kidney is likely to gain more from this encounter in the long run.

The primary objectives were to get back in the saddle with a proper hit-out (check); to avoid a heavy defeat with an understrength side (check); and come out of the match with long-term absentees successfully reintroduced and no fresh injuries (check, check).

It was a sluggish start, sure, but the aim is to peak in September and it is worth recalling the Six Nations, when Ireland took their time to get going before rounding off the tournament in style.

A win would have been nice but victory was only coughed up in the final couple of minutes and, though he expressed his disappointment, Kidney gave off the impression of a relatively content coach afterwards.

"I'm not going to lose sleep," he said. "I'm disappointed because when we get to wear green the result is what people look for, and we came second, but I know where we are.

"We get to within two minutes of a three-pointer (win), and then we lose it, and then the emotion is, 'do we write about that 10 minutes or do we write about the 70 minutes that went before it?'. My job is to try to keep a level head and that's what I'll do."

There were individual performances to be encouraged about and others that were less comforting (see panel), but one of the major issues to come out of the match revolves around the scrum-half position. The second pool game against Australia is the fixture that will have the greatest bearing on Ireland's World Cup progress and scrum-half Will Genia is the heartbeat of the Wallaby team.

On Saturday morning, New Zealand's Richie McCaw suffocated the gifted No 9 and Aussie ambition was thwarted as a result. The suspicion has long been held that, in an ideal world, Kidney has earmarked Tomas O'Leary as the perfect player to get in Genia's face next month, but the fact is that, for a variety of reasons including injury, the Munster man has not been at his best since the season before last.

His service against Scotland did not help Ireland's offensive aspirations and while he put in his customary quota of hits, if the Irish backline is to sparkle in New Zealand, they need quicker delivery.

So, what to do? Giving O'Leary another chance next weekend to find form is one solution, but if that fails, there is less time left to tee up his replacement.

Eoin Reddan has a better delivery and played well last season but does not have O'Leary's physical presence so, with Genia in mind, then we have Conor Murray, who ticks both boxes.

The Munster youngster's rise to prominence has been extraordinary and, while it has all happened very quickly, seeing how he goes against the French would determine whether he is a live World Cup option or needs more time to develop. Now is the time to find out.

In terms of likely starters against Australia, it was a good afternoon for Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald while Jonathan Sexton, who kicked Ireland's two penalties, put in a decent shift and Jerry Flannery made a welcome return to rugby.

Andrew Trimble also kept his name in the mix with a typically committed performance, while Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy threw themselves into the jostle for a place on the plane with considerable enthusiasm.

When you consider that, after 15 minutes, Scotland had 64pc of the possession and, after 25, had only made 13 tackles to Ireland's 54, it can safely be stated that this was a good showing by the Irish defence.

problem

The Scots took their try well and Kidney did not have a problem with Graeme Morrison cutting off Paddy Wallace which, on another day, might have been deemed to be obstruction.

"No it's the line, defensively it's not out-and-out obstruction," said Kidney. "You have to be able to read that and be able to move out from it. They're all marginal calls."

Neither did he feel there was an issue with the scrum (something Robinson highlighted as a major plus for Scotland), despite No 8 Denis Leamy having to deal with a couple of balls and scrums coming back on top of him in tandem.

Kidney pointed to the fact that he replaced the entire front-row in the second period.

"With the different combinations, I wasn't overly upset with our scrum. I know where we are with our preparation, I know what we've done to get to where we are now and I know what we can do to move it on. So I'm not overly concerned about that."

Replicating a touring scenario, and mindful of the World Cup prerogatives, it is apparent that Kidney is operating off a two-tier strategy this month and he is likely to introduce a clutch of his top players for the trip to Bordeaux while holding on to the likes of Kearney and Flannery for more game time.

"Yeah there would be (changes); it's not a case of sitting down with a blank sheet after each game -- there would be an overall plan for August."

And, this was part of it -- a reasonable start to a long thought-out process which is all about progressing towards the main objective.

Not great, not bad, not going to live long in the memory.

SCOTLAND -- C Paterson (N de Luca 71); N Walker (J Cuthbert 22), J Ansbro, G Morrison, S Lamont; R Jackson, R Lawson (capt, G Laidlaw 71); A Jacobsen (A Dickinson 58), R Ford (D Hall 71), G Cross, J Hamilton (A Kellock 58), R Gray, A Strokosch, R Rennie, J Beattie (D Denton 58).

IRELAND -- R Kearney; A Trimble, F McFadden, P Wallace, L Fitzgerald (F Jones 61); J Sexton, T O'Leary (I Boss 61); T Court (M Horan 62), S Cronin (J Flannery 61), T Buckley (J Hayes 61), D Ryan (K McLaughlin 52), L Cullen (capt, M O'Driscoll 61), M McCarthy, N Ronan, D Leamy.

REF -- W Barnes (England).

Irish Independent

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