Tuesday 17 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Rising Sons reveal Irish as shadows of former selves'

Ireland captain Rory Best after yesterday’s defeat to England at Twickenham. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland captain Rory Best after yesterday’s defeat to England at Twickenham. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you haven't seen England's mini-series Rising Sons, telling the story of their World Cup preparations, then we recommend you check it out. All seven episodes are on YouTube, and you'd fly through the lot in about an hour and a half. It would be wrong to categorise it as a warts-and-all, fly-on-the-wall documentary. In truth it's closer to propaganda. But it's very watchable propaganda.

If you are English you will come away feeling better about your team. If you are not you will come away feeling less sanguine about your team's chances if they stray into England's path. And if you are connected with O2, England's main sponsor, you will be delighted with the way it turned out. The company's brand is everywhere except in your face.

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The production is an altogether more advanced model of what the All Blacks hit us with in 2007. Back then, with a view to achieving World Cup excellence, they pulled a rake of their marquee names from that season's Super Rugby competition in favour of a conditioning programme the like of which the world had never seen - if that doesn't sound too close to something the current leader of the free world might come out with.

It caused ructions in New Zealand's domestic game. Graham Henry clicked his fingers and 22 men in black were pulled from the first half of the competition. By way of justification the All Blacks' PR machine would issue images from training camps at appropriate times to illustrate the incredibly good shape of their men. Folks, it's working!

In England's case, Rising Sons is of its time: a lovely production with drones and all sorts producing perfect images. Not only is there not a cloud in the sky, from team bases in Surrey to the Algarve to Treviso, but no pitch has as much as a weed on it, every changing room is pristine, every stitch of training and playing gear looks like it's just come out of the cellophane wrapper.

And the players? Well lordy, the players - every man jack of them - are specimens. Even the fatties look, if not ripped, than very, very strong. By the time you get to the end - England's second warm-up game with Wales, and the early announcement of the World Cup squad - you have a crystal clear picture of an England group who are supremely fit and confident about what they will achieve in Japan.

To sustain this image, Eddie Jones needed his team to course Ireland around Twickenham yesterday. A full house expected nothing less. Yes, it's the twilight zone of World Cup Warm-Up Land, but the effect of picking his 31-man squad before anyone else was to clarify that form was what they were after. They already knew who they wanted on the plane - now it's about building up a head of steam.

The contrast with Ireland could hardly have been more stark. Throughout Rising Sons we see Owen Farrell and George Ford leading, cajoling, looking fit and well. The enduring image of Ireland's Joey Carbery is of him being golf-carted off the field in Lansdowne Road against Italy two weeks ago. As for Johnny Sexton, the grave doubts about Carbery only heighten the concern about keeping the first choice outhalf fit.

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Yesterday Ross Byrne was the buffer between Sexton and harm. It was Byrne's first time to start a Test match and he will have known what was ahead of him in the searing Twickenham heat. His best moment was converting Larmour's try from the touchline. His worst was hurrying the ball off the field for an England lineout after the ball had been taken back into the Ireland 22. Byrne could have been forgiven for stopping the game and asking, 'Who accepted this fixture?'

If there was a sense of Irish foreboding from early then it ramped up around the half-hour mark when Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler and Manu Tuilagi carried in succession, and won the collisions with ease. The aggregate was a whole heap of space for Ireland to try to cover, and sadly for Jacob Stockdale it was down his wing.

Rewind for a moment to Jordan Larmour's early try: perfect kick ahead by Stockdale who chased for all his worth. The enduring image, however, is the sheer size of his opposite number, Joe Cockanasiga, running alongside him and blocking out a chunk of sunlight. Thereafter Stockdale was mostly going backwards, and ending up with defensive decisions he didn't want to make.

As with the Six Nations game in February when England came to Dublin and bullied from start to finish, Ireland's attack was constantly looking at superior numbers, an advantage that allowed the defence to put real speed into their effort. If you're not making defenders stop in their tracks then it's a nightmare that recurs over the course of the 80 minutes.

Yes, Ireland are a game further back than England on their road to the World Cup, and those extra minutes make a difference. But not that much. Their lineout was woeful, and Rory Best - hardly new to this experience - will share the responsibility with lineout leader Iain Henderson.

It didn't get any better when Sean Cronin and Devin Toner were on the field.

In short, it was a shambles. The defence was all over the place - 31 per cent of tackles were missed - and the attack's best chance, given the collision damage suffered as the phases unfolded, was to strike off set-piece.

But if you're losing six of 15 throws then the lineout is like trying to fire a rocket out of a canoe. And England's efficiency was such that Ireland had all of three scrums. They won them!

But they lost their loosehead, and one of their best players. The bad news is that Cian Healy has a long history of ankle damage, the good news is that he managed to walk off the field. Conor Murray, too, was a casualty, taking the full force of Jonny May's pointy elbow in the side of the head. The prognosis on this pair will decide if yesterday in Twickenham could possibly have been worse.

So maybe this is the reason Ireland didn't go down the England road and give us a feature length story of their journey to this point.

You don't have to divulge state secrets to make it watchable, but once you open the door to your pristine gaff, where everything is tipping along like clockwork, then supporters not only feel good about the team, they expect a Home of the Year award.

Expectation, and how to deal with it, has always been an issue in Irish rugby. In 2001 Eddie O'Sullivan decided to treat it as more friend than foe when going to Murrayfield, knowing that it could go horribly wrong. It went horribly wrong. The same coach could write a book, and not just a chapter in a book, about how it can eat away at confidence when those outside the camp want sun, moon and stars while those inside it know the preparation won't deliver it.

There are a few folks in this rugby constituency who fear that the calendar year 2018, with its 11 wins from 12, and its three wins from four Tests against Australia and New Zealand, reached the brow of the hill on that grey November day against the All Blacks in Lansdowne Road. Since then it has been varying degrees of less. Yesterday was plain empty.

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