Wednesday 21 March 2018

No plan, no direction and little to offer hope

David Kelly

David Kelly

The headlines about ‘ballboy-gate’ may shout the loudest, but behind them may be an even more troubling story for an Irish team sorely lacking direction on and off the pitch.

On their last visit to Cardiff, Ireland had the dream game plan. A no-frills approach based on simplicity and the ruthless ability to take their chances harvested Ireland their first Grand Slam of the modern era. It wasn’t always pretty but, when the chips were down, nobody seemed likely to fluff their lines.

Two years on from the moment when Geordan Murphy kicked the ball into the Millennium Stadium crowd, thistime a Welshman was in control of the pill in exactly the same position. Ireland, palpably, had not been.

Ireland are now at a watershed in their pre- World Cup development and too many questions are tugging at the coach’s sleeve. Time is running out to resolve them adequately.

“The try wasn’t the be-all and end- all,” asserted captain Brian O’Driscoll, who wasn’t hiding behind excuses. This match was Ireland’s to win – and they blew it against a solid but unspectacular Welsh side.

“I know we’re better than that,” insisted Declan Kidney. It is now his job to discover why his side are failing repeatedly to demonstrate that fact.

Are the players buying in to the coach's plans?

Ireland's error count on Saturday was higher than in Rome. That fact alone should jar every coach and player into a reality that dictates they can no longer purvey the line that improvement is there for all to see.

It patently is not. To aver each week that Ireland are close to clicking, as hooker Rory Best did once more on Saturday, is to deny the fundamental flaws in Ireland's game plan which are destroying their constructive potential.

Ireland managed to win the ball 35 times in the opponents' '22' -- the sacred red zone where one hopes to take scoring advantage. Following their opening try, Ireland scored six points in 77 minutes of rugby.

That is a measly return. Ireland made nine kicking errors; they kicked nearly three times as much as they did against France, for example.

Their insistence on ensuring the roof was open betrayed an anxious ambiguity about their tactical approach.

At times, Luke Fitzgerald (left being tackled by Paul James) launched high balls because quite simply he had no inkling -- or, more pointedly, perhaps, no trust -- in what he was supposed to do next.

Players have to buy into a coach's game plan. At the moment, it seems few are interested in buying a ticket.

Has sexton treatment done lasting damage?

Much of the confusion has stemmed from the prevarications on the out-half issue, once more highlighted by one of the most bizarre tactical substitutions ever rendered by Kidney. Ireland started the campaign with Jonny Sexton as their preferred out-half and, long-term, the man who would be granted the opportunity to repel the Australians come World Cup showtime.

Sexton ended Saturday's match a solitary, haunted figure. When the final whistle went, he trudged slowly off the pitch (pictured below) without acknowledging anyone else, his head bowed in despair at the realisation that his international dream is unravelling before our eyes.

From a position where he has been so pilloried for excessively running the ball -- supposedly the new Irish game plan -- for some reason he deigned to kick his first possession on Saturday.

The consequences were disastrous for so many reasons -- the most crushing may now lay within Sexton's ears. His subsequent missed penalty compounded the feeling that Sexton's confidence must now be on the floor.

It is now the coaches' responsibility to restore their faith in his ability.

If you're second best at kicking, why kick?

When Alan Gaffney remarked upon how Ireland's lack of communication may be an inhibiting factor, he was swiftly shut down by his captain and his head coach. The backs coach has not spoken in public since.

Clearly, there most be some form of communication breakdown and, more worryingly, a lack of leadership on and off the field which is damaging Ireland's prospects in a championship campaign which has deteriorated, rather than improved, the longer it has gone on.

On Saturday, Kidney conceded that Ireland came second-best in a kicking duel. So why kick so much? The appalling neglect of the counter-attack as a consistent method of approach reflects poorly on the coaching ticket.

O'Driscoll seemed to assert afterwards that a kicking approach was paramount; others in his camp were more amenable to the flawed 'mix and match' theory. Mixing and matching is codeword for clueless rugby, which is what predominantly featured.

Had Ireland retained faith in the game being marshalled by O'Gara when cruising, albeit just four points ahead, they would have easily fended off a Welsh side devoid of penetration and line-breaking capability.

That they didn't must now infuriate the players who have seen their authority on the pitch over-ruled by a nonsensical tactical switch that ultimately undermined their opportunity to win the match.

Will we now use our supposed 'strength in depth'?

Peter Allan, the hapless Scottish assistant (right), should quite rightly never be awarded another gig in this championship again.

If only Ireland's players were operating under anything resembling that kind of pressure to perform on the big stage; unless, of course, you are Fergus McFadden, who performs perfectly adequately and is then discarded.

That decision came back to haunt Kidney on Saturday when McFadden's de facto replacement on the bench, Paddy Wallace, butchered a situation the Leinster player would probably manage to execute blindfolded when on club duty.

Wallace, as is now clear, should not have been on the bench to cover full-back -- or out-half -- when there are already candidates available to do just that.

McFadden must be restored, arguably to the team.

Fitzgerald's confidence at full-back -- eroded much like Sexton's due to the confusion about the game plan and the ambiguous messages coming from the top -- must be spared another ordeal, as he was clearly dejected when trooping off the Cardiff turf.

Ireland need their best players in key areas -- hence Tommy Bowe at full-back and Keith Earls in the centre (nominally as a 13 albeit the captain would retain that jersey number), with Fitzgerald moved to the wing, space where he thrived on Saturday.

The pack produced a surfeit of ball for their backline on Saturday, but if the coach protests so vigorously about the squad's strength in depth, then now is the time to use it.

Replacement hooker Sean Cronin palpably needs game time, Jamie Heaslip (above) arguably needs a wake-up call and Leo Cullen deserves the chance to frank his status as a back-up second-row.

Ireland's squad expansion last summer seems like a distant memory.

Irish Independent

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