Wednesday 22 November 2017

Now for Ireland's real test as darkness beckons


Hugh Farrelly In Kingsholm

AFTER the sunshine and celebration of the past two weeks, New Zealand waits ominously for Irish rugby's finest like a long, black cloud, promising short cold days and relentless weekend examinations by the world champions.

Ireland needed a morale-booster before flying out tomorrow and this was not quite it.

One can never read too much into encounters between two scratch sides with little preparation time and comparisons with the Heineken Cup champions are unfair for this reason, but this Leinster-less Ireland effort was lacking in invention and execution an defeat followed on.

The upsides were an excellent showing by two-try Craig Gilroy, outplaying Simon Zebo, who has his place on the plane (although Zebo had his moments), a solid showing by hooker Mike Sherry in loose and tight to banish memories of his troubles against the Ospreys, excellent kicking by Ronan O'Gara and a typically combative effort from Peter O'Mahony.


Not enough to secure victory, though, with Felipe Contepomi breaking with a tradition to kick the winning penalty which gave Barbarians captain Mick O'Driscoll a nice end to a fine career.

A crowd of nearly 12,000 turned out in glorious Gloucester sunshine and after impeccably observing a minute's silence for departed Cherry and Whites legend John Brain, settled down to watch some loose, flowing rugby.

However, it was the tight stuff that proved most relevant from an Irish point of view. With Tom Court out and Mike Ross carrying a knock, Ireland coach Declan Kidney needed a strong showing from his props Brett Wilkinson and Declan Fitzpatrick.

But the Barbarians scrum, spearheaded by Ulster's John Afoa (one of the overseas props complicating Ireland's depth in the front-row) who dominated from the off with Wilkinson in particular trouble.

Peter O'Mahony was doing well to break free on the retreat, but the Baa-Baas' superiority provided a secure foundation which allowed them to build scores. These arrived from Iain Balshaw, Cornelius van Zyl and Paul Sackey with Contepomi converting two.

With an inevitable lack of structure, both sides took advantage of defensive lapses (more concerning from an Ireland perspective given the challenges ahead) and Sackey's try from a quick tap exposed confusion with Darren Cave caught on the hop.

There was plenty of meat in the hits and as well as a bit of edge, with Contepomi and O'Gara having a good 2000s-style tussle and O'Mahony squaring up to Baa-Baas forwards in a touchline grip-and-grin.

Local boy Mike Tindall was having a big game in the centre, although the former England captain suffered some good-natured ribbing from The Shed who, mindful of his pleas for another Gloucester contract this week, chanted "You'll never work again" at the 33-year-old when he gave away a penalty.

Ireland's scores came from Craig Gilroy and Keith Earls and were converted by Ronan O'Gara.

But, while a half-time deficit of 19-14 was manageable, the issues with the scrum, slow ball at the breakdown, lack of depth in attack and some defensive insecurities, it was not the most reassuring 40 minutes ahead of the trip to take on the world champions.

Zebo did what he does best and ghosted in for a try on the resumption, followed by Darren Cave failing to finish his excellent break with a decent scoring pass. Further scores came from Tindall (riotously received), with Ireland responding through Gilroy (following an excellent Keith Earls pass) and then Contepomi's clincher.

Ireland will confirm who fills out their touring party today and Ronan Loughney is in the mix to make a late bid for the plane.

Initially replacing Fitzpatrick, the Connacht man switched over to the loose-head side when Wilkinson went off and the scrum immediately solidified.

The other spots are likely to be taken by Chris Henry (quiet), Paul Marshall (just two minutes off the bench) and Paul O'Connell, who is to travel out on Saturday.

Bar Loughney, and the fact that Gilroy's talent continues to flourish, there was not a whole lot to glean from Kingsholm, but Kidney will be grateful for no further injuries.

Now for the real stuff ... the darkness beckons.

IRELAND -- K Earls; C Gilroy (N Spence 77), D Cave, P Wallace, S Zebo; R O'Gara (capt), C Murray (P Marshall 77); B Wilkinson (D Fitzpatrick 69), M Sherry, D Fitzpatrick (R Loughney 57); D Tuohy (D O'Callaghan 60), D Ryan; J Muldoon, C Henry (J Coughlan 60), P O'Mahony (A Trimble 72).

BARBARIANS -- C Heymans; P Sackey, M Tindall, D Traille (S Donald 70), I Balshaw (I Nacewa 55); F Contepomi, R Lawson (R Rees 71); D Jones, B August (A De Malmanche 40), J Afoa (N Tialata 55); M O'Driscoll (capt), C Van Zyl (P Taele 25-32, 55); M Gorgodze (A Qera 65), F Louw, R Lakafia.

REF -- J Garces (France)

Irish Independent

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