Lesser lights give Kidney a welcome headache
When the New Zealand Maori finished their fearsome Haka on Friday night in Rotorua, I couldn't help but feel the butterflies in my stomach, even from a distance of thousands of miles. This particular Haka was ferocious and the facial expressions, tongues and eyes were terrifying and undeniably intimating for the 22 Irish lads a long, long way from home.
I stated here last week that I felt, for whatever reason, that Ireland were possibly too laid-back initially in the Test against the All Blacks. Things appeared not to have changed this week and the opening 15 minutes against the Maori looked like we were facing a repeat of last week's nightmare in New Plymouth.
The sign of a great captain is to not only say the right words, but to back it up physically and take control of his troops -- and Geordan Murphy unquestionably did this on Friday night and for that, he deserves every credit. After 15 minutes, Murphy and his Irish team made a conscious decision not to lie down and instead dug their heels in and showed massive heart, determination and commitment.
By avoiding a landslide loss, the full squad of 22 and the coaching staff demonstrated that they had learned a very important lesson from last week's hiding and that is one enormous positive that I'm sure that Declan Kidney will take from this tour -- that we're learning. Ireland refused to panic and didn't make the mistake of chasing the game too early like we did in Paris last February and in New Plymouth eight days ago.
The manner in which this group of predominantly young and inexperienced guys got together and bounced back from 15 points down very early really impressed me. Sure, the boys will be gutted at the result and I feel a draw was the least they deserved.
However, for me we needed to achieve three things from this match: 1) Deliver a strong performance, regardless of the result; 2) Show psychological strength after last week's humiliation and; 3) See some good individual performances to create a more competitive squad. Ireland scored full marks in all three.
Kidney has some very tough decisions to make next week across the park and knowing Declan, he loves having these headaches because it means there is good healthy competition for places in the squad. His goal will be to have 25/30 players who are able to comfortably play Test rugby when the World Cup comes around.
I must say, when I heard that Rhys Ruddock was joining the tour, I raised an eyebrow. Undeniably, he has a very bright future but I couldn't help but think of the alternatives left at home, namely Alan Quinlan, Stephen Keogh, James Coughlan, Neil Best and Roger Wilson. Ruddock did, however, play extremely well and his backrow partners, Niall Ronan and Chris Henry, can also be proud of their performances.
John Hayes got through 40 minutes unscathed and Marcus Horan, John Fogarty and Damian Varley all looked very sharp both in the tight and in the loose. Jonny Sexton had a great day with the boot and Paddy Wallace and Murphy were in sparking form showing their superb footballing skills.
Traditionally, Ireland have been very conservative with selection and form does not always come into it. However, I think Declan needs to make a statement this week and reward the form players of this tour so far with selection for Australia next Saturday. It can be demoralising if you are knocking on the door and not being recognised and in order to harness a good culture in a squad these guys simply must be picked.
Again, I feel that a performance against Australia next week is the priority as opposed to the result. A win would be exhilarating and not impossible but Ireland need to focus on themselves and impose their game plan on Australia. When teams play against Ireland, they expect 15 fairly mad Irishmen to throw themselves around and put their heads where somebody else would not put their hand. Ireland will need to live up to this expectation at least and I believe if they do this the performance will follow.
With professional rugby nowadays, so much time is spent on patterns, moves and technical aspects of the game and very often the mental side can be overlooked as coaches assume that players already have this naturally. They do have this mental edge but time also needs to go into this psychological aspect of the build-up this week.
Ireland will need to get in the faces of the Wallabies and let them know that we are up for it and not to get sucked into the Australian game and the way they want to play. Australia will want to use the set-piece only as a means to restart the game and create an unstructured throw-around that could cause havoc for us.
By attacking their set-piece like England have done so well and slowing the ball as well as the game down, we will have a chance of turning them over. We have to be prepared to win ugly at the expense of attractive rugby and in fact this goes for all Northern Hemisphere teams at the moment when they play the big three of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Test rugby is about peaking at the right time and this tour is all geared towards the World Cup which is still over a year away. Remember, Ireland have underperformed in World Cups so that is something we must put right. If it means losing a few games on the way to doing it, so be it.