Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 March 2018

Ross and O'Gara give Kidney reason to cheer

Sean O'Brien is tackled by David Skrela (l) and Romain Millo-Chlusky during their World Cup warm-up game in France last night. Photo: Brendan Moran
Sean O'Brien is tackled by David Skrela (l) and Romain Millo-Chlusky during their World Cup warm-up game in France last night. Photo: Brendan Moran


In case you weren't tuned into Mike Ross's importance to Ireland, you should be now. Having been ignored for longer than was reasonable, he has become the difference between having a scrum and Ireland not having a scrum. Yes, it's possible to win the odd game without one -- Wales managed it earlier in the day in Cardiff -- but it's not a policy you want to adopt.

So the chance of a draw in Bordeaux last night, and with it a boost to morale having come back from as bad a 40 minutes as we have seen from Ireland, went south on a five- metre scrum that went back. Ross was on the bench; Tony Buckley was in the cockpit, and the plane crashed. It remains to be seen what effect this has on Buckley's chances of going to New Zealand. You need two tight heads on board, and aside from Ross we have one who is too old -- John Hayes -- and another who is not a good enough scrummager -- Buckley. There is no way out of this for Declan Kidney.

It was an instructive night for the coach, reaffirming his positive thoughts about Donnacha Ryan, who is far from devastating but hangs in there til the end. He will have been pleased too about his back-up number eight, Denis Leamy, and the kids who came on -- Felix Jones and Conor Murray. Kidney will have been relieved too that Jerry Flannery is still on the right track, for Rory Best had another one of those days, which pop up a little too often in his career, where everything he touched out of touch was, well, out of touch.

Other good news? It's old news but Ronan O'Gara is a wonderful footballer with a brain that works very quickly. You would fault him only for his apparent role in the decision, in conjunction with Paul O'Connell, to shoot for goal when another penalty to the corner seemed the better option for France were buckling at that point. Their mood picked up when they saw O'Gara march back to take the kick rather than set up a lineout.

The bad news was that Ireland couldn't score a try; Sean O'Brien is not a seven; Paddy Wallace has a habit of making bad decisions at really important stages of games; and when Donncha O'Callaghan doesn't have O'Connell beside him he simply isn't the same player. O'Callaghan had a very poor game. In the first half he was one of many.

At times in Murrayfield last weekend you could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland were on manoeuvres. Defensive manoeuvres. That they were happy to let the Scots have the ball for long periods so that hours devoted to defence on the training ground could at last be seen to good effect. Well, last night in Bordeaux the defensive manoeuvre was taken up another notch -- and combined with a skeleton staff applied to the breakdown. Now let's see how the defence holds up?

Picture the scene: steaming hot night in the south of France -- where the locals absolutely love their rare opportunities to welcome the national side -- and surely the top of your agenda is to stop the home team getting into a rhythm. Players and crowd both. And the starting point here has to be to get numbers to the breakdown and rupture their supply line.

Instead, Ireland sent in ones and twos and were obliterated at this phase. True, it's not easy to contest when your opponents are given great latitude to go off their feet to protect the ball -- thank you referee Steve Walsh -- but you have to at least attend the scene of the crime in the first place.

It got a lot better in the second half when Ireland got a foothold in the tackle area, but even then there were two teams playing very different brands of rugby: Ireland went through the phases and picked off their points; France played the ball out of the tackle and exploded onto it.

Some of it was illegal, like Maxime Mermoz running a clever blocking run on Leo Cullen to make sure that there would be plenty of space for Vincent Clerc to score the game's only try. Much of it, however, was within the laws but outside anything Ireland could put together.

So with the return leg at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, Kidney has seen his team lose twice when they could have won -- true, victory last night would have been remarkable in the circumstances -- and while these games are about more than the result, winning makes us all feel better. For example, if Ireland lose at the weekend they will need mood-altering agents to put smiles on their faces. And we don't want to go down that road.

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