Wednesday 17 January 2018

Big changes needed for a team that has little left but regrets

Kidney's charges have regressed to the point where overhaul is a must, writes Neil Francis

Brian O' Driscoll. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O' Driscoll. Photo: Sportsfile

Just before the funeral service the undertaker went over to the widow and asked, "How old was your husband?". "Ninety-nine", she answered, "a year older than me." "So you're 98," said the undertaker? Hardly worth going home, is it?

As a funereal pal hung over Cardiff yesterday you would wonder, what is the point in going home?

Ireland should have something to compete for next Saturday other than the prize of spoiling England's season, but that is not what this group is about and in much the same way they will rue an incredibly expensive loss to a French side that we now know after yesterday's miracle in Rome is one of the worst French sides in living memory.

Ireland will look back at their performance against a very negative and one-dimensional Welsh side that simply played a little more cleverly than you would have given them credit for. Ireland did not play well enough to win this game, although it was well within their compass to dispose of Wales and now it is the Taffs who go to Paris next week with something to play for and gallingly hope for a favour from the Paddies.

It was yet another awful game to watch. Last year I had a colonoscopy and they let me watch it on the TV monitor; it was more entertaining than the match in Cardiff yesterday. It would seem that most northern hemisphere players have lost their sense of perspective when it comes to applying the fundamentals of the game, the ability to give and take a pass, the notion of spatial awareness knowing when it is more prudent to kick than pass, knowing what to do in certain sectors of the park and Ireland were just as poor as Wales as they reverted to rugby of the lowest common denominator.

In every situation that required intelligent reading Ireland failed. Gatland, even though the oars aren't touching the water these days, just was a little bit more astute in his game management and how he instructed his players to manage their game plan.

The first decision that had to be made took place a day before the match kicked off. Why on earth would Ireland want to play the match with the roof open when they knew there would be rain in the afternoon? Ireland are, no question, the more skillful side and their off-loading game really does depend on a dry ball. You could see Ireland were more comfortable in possession and they had more teeth when they were going forward. Wales, as they have been for the last two seasons, were lateral to the point of monotony.

We did not know that Wales would kick. Hook was brought in to set off the fireworks, but he kicked far better than Ireland expected and he, in conjunction with Lee Byrne, was able to kick longer and more accurately than Ireland could. We lost the game of ping-pong and ceded tactical advantage as our back three were undone with their own kicking game.

Look for your strengths and you will find them in exactly the same place as your weaknesses. It is an elementary truth that we expect our back three to attack. We were less certain as it proved about their ability to kick successfully but, my God, they were startlingly poor when the ball was fielded and they turned around to face an average Welsh line coming up which was not particularly well possessed of great line speed. Wales missed 14 tackles in the entire match and yet Ireland still had no concept of how to get men behind the ball and attack with confidence. The truth is always only in the action and Ireland stuttered every time you expected them to take advantage.

Whatever about the counter-attack I still have to ask, what about our attack? We shouldn't be dependent on another team kicking the ball to us merely that we can try to run it back out. Ireland's proficiency of set-plays has regressed and once again you would have to question Alan Gaffney's ability to get anything more out of this back line. New thought, new ideas or else a new backs coach.

Introspection scares the living hell out of your natural instincts. Ireland, no question, were a little bit more disciplined and conceded eight penalties to the Welsh 10. I don't think an extra focus on discipline took anything away from the natural braggadocio and sometimes you can use fear as a motivator, but Ireland looked inhibited or unwilling to try and grab this game by the scruff of the neck. Both teams were efficient in winning their own tight ball and retaining it, any turnovers of note went to Ireland but once again we were unable to take advantage of any of these primarily because we spent 60 to 70 per cent of the time in our own half.

Touch judge Peter Allan's incorrect call beggared belief that somebody who is deemed a professional could make a decision like that. Kaplan asked his advice and the call was erroneous in the extreme. I'm not sure whether Wales would have scored again in the second half, but then again Ireland were held scoreless for the entire second half, which is an appalling indictment on how far this team have fallen.

They do however have synapse of courage and resilience about them and they know how to pull games out of the fire, but their coach with his daft selection policy undid them. I will be amazed to see Luke Fitzgerald picked to play against England at full-back. This championship has told us that he is not a full-back. Kidney took him off in the 72nd minute and put on Paddy Wallace who played out-half for Ulster until he was switched into first centre. These are positions that Jonathan Sexton was covering so there was no outfield cover and when the clutch moment in the game arrived the wrong man was in the wrong position at the wrong time.

As Ireland got their last chance in the 79th minute to take a game they scarcely deserved to win, the ball was brilliantly put out on the left hand side, wondrous hands under horrendous pressure, by Sexton, D'Arcy and O'Driscoll got the ball into Wallace's hands with a two-to-one overlap. Earls, who looked sharp and focused, was waiting for a simple five-metre pass. Halfpenny was stuck in no-man's land and all Wallace had to do was run straight and keep his pass in front of Earls. Paul Warwick, another out-half/first centre who was able to play full-back, would have executed this simple task without any fuss. Footballers make these simple decisions, Wallace for some reason known only to himself, incredibly cut back in when there was only one thing to do. He nearly lost Ireland a Grand Slam two years ago and yesterday he cost them the chance of another Triple Crown. He shouldn't have been there in the first place and that one goes down to Kidney.

This was a quite disquieting somnolescent performance for most of the team but in particular our leaders. Heaslip seems to be saving himself for Leinster games. O'Connell was way down on his Scottish performance. O'Gara's tactical kicking and execution were poor and only O'Driscoll, who could sense the mediocrity surrounding him, had any idea about how to try and get Ireland out of this mess; but the fact that he got the ball in his hands three times in offensive situations tells you that Ireland have really lost their way.

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