Wednesday 21 March 2018

Luke Marshall: 'If we plan to play like that, there's no point going out'

Marshall promises improvement as All Blacks loom

Luke Marshall and Brian O'Driscoll tackle Israel Folau
Luke Marshall and Brian O'Driscoll tackle Israel Folau
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

LUKE MARSHALL wore what looked like the graze of a stud down his right temple and his smile had the startled quality of somebody just rescued from a snowdrift. He stood in the small, roped-off interrogation centre of the mixed zone, politely fielding sympathetic questions.

It was gone nine on Saturday night now, the darkened stadium outside restored to a giant, empty refrigeration unit. All the gentle euphemisms were being applied with a light brush.

Learning curves. Eradicating mistakes. Moving forward.

Until one question landed upon him like a cudgel. "If you play like that next weekend, is it fair to say the All Blacks will put 50 points on ye?"

Marshall swallowed hard, the illusion that he was amongst friends suddenly lying in a puddle on the floor. For just a split second he seemed to contemplate taking offence. But preciousness could offer no safety net here.

"I suppose we don't plan to play like that next week," he sighed eventually, his tone keyed for a confessional.

"If we plan to play like that, there's no point going out on the pitch."

The All Blacks coming with history in their heads is not a time for singing nursery rhymes.

This coming week then will ask things of Joe Schmidt and his players that few believe they are equipped to answer. It must feel like finding yourself alive after a ski-lift plunge, only to hear the rumble of an avalanche.

Ireland didn't so much lose to Australia on Saturday as tend their every need with napkins tossed over sleeves.

Under a full moon, the early portents had been universally grim. Inside just two minutes, Johnny Sexton missed an easy touch; Devin Toner fumbled the first line-out; Rob Kearney spooned a box-kick right down Israel Folau's throat.

Self-harm was the order of the day then. Aimless, panicked kicking kept tickling the belly of Folau, some of the Wallaby full-back's catches coming straight from the Kennedy Centre in Cape Canaveral.

Kearney is, arguably, the finest fielder of a ball in the northern hemisphere.

But to challenge Folau, he might have considered taking a stairs to the Lansdowne roof and deploying a parachute.

Ireland's set-piece play was in turmoil too and, worse, the players lacked any discernible sense of outrage.

When Tevita Kuridrani was red-carded for that wretched tip-tackle on Peter O'Mahony, only the Munster captain himself seemed energised towards retribution.

Up in a commentary booth, Ronan O'Gara recoiled from what he interpreted as group passiveness.

Kuridrani, ROG said later, should have expected to have his "head taken off".

It was symptomatic of a day utterly devoid of consolation. Australia won by four tries to nil on a meagre 36pc of possession.

They conceded 15 penalties to Ireland's seven and were devoured throughout for territory. Yet, four tries to nil? Boy was this an orgy of carelessness.

Marshall's fingerprints had, he admitted, been all over the critical third. He had been flicked around like a turnstile just six minutes after the resumption as Quade Cooper knifed in from the left.

The Wallaby pivot found a gap between Ian Madigan and Marshall through which you could float the Queen Mary.

"I was to blame," acknowledged Marshall flatly. "A lapse of concentration maybe. It was annoying to let through such an easy score – the easiest score he'll get for himself. I was looking at it on the big screen. He was my man.

"I suppose we're playing new (defensive) combinations. But no, I put my hand up. It was my man, my mistake and a pretty costly error definitely. A couple of their tries were extremely soft like that, we didn't really make them work for them.

"We probably hurt ourselves more than anything."

He had been consoled by Schmidt afterwards in the dressing-room, a gesture greatly appreciated. And there were certainly fleeting moments from Marshall to suggest a long-term future at this altitude. The Ballymena kid is just 22, a work in progress.

The worry about Saturday centred upon broader DNA.

When Sexton's hamstring removed him from the narrative (the score at 12-15), Ireland lacked an alternative. Madigan does some wonderful things, but has not yet had the opportunity to master control of a back division.

Paddy Jackson will probably play next Sunday. Rog, meanwhile, will be on the fifth floor, wearing ear-phones.

As the Irish scrum imploded, the backs struggled for coherent expression.

Brian O'Driscoll on the front foot has been one of the great, soothing sights for a generation of Irish rugby followers. Yet here, he was anonymous. Possession rarely came to him without an attendant Wallaby.

Mike Ross understood where much of the culpability lay, admitting that the pack would not enjoy today's video session.

"Joe is harsh, but fair," said Ross.

"He has a great eye for detail, picking things out of the video and presenting it in fairly black and white. So, generally, there's no room for argument.

"You work bloody hard to get into scoring positions and then, if you give up points, it's just like a slap in the face. All that work you did was pretty much in vain.

"But remember, when Joe was at Leinster, is was a slow start as well and we came good."

Ross talked of a week of "soul-searching" in camp, of the natural motivation triggered by playing the best team in the world.

Yet Ireland's defence had looked so garbled, so threadbare on Saturday and their attack corrupted by such aimless, indiscriminate kicking, the thought of the All Blacks coming to Dublin carried only a sense of foreboding.

"We don't really have any time to feel sorry for ourselves," said Marshall.

"Because it's as big as they come next week. There's no point just making excuses today. You're never going to improve if you do that. You have to take responsibility for your mistakes and your actions, and we're a pretty good group of guys who can do that.

"We'll stand up for each other, move forward from this and learn from it."

Meanwhile, Sunday looms. A speeding train closing on a car stalled at the crossing.

Irish Independent

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