Saturday 16 December 2017

5 things we learned

1 Defence doesn't necessarily win championships

Apart from Grand Slam-bound England, Ireland have the stingiest defence in the Six Nations this season.

It's all well and good to keep opponents at bay, but if you can't score points at the other end then the results won't come.

Time and time again, Declan Kidney's men put their bodies on the line and made the hits against an admittedly limited French attack, and when Louis Picamoles crashed over for his try, it was the first time the Irish line had been breached in 238 minutes of Test rugby.

Their return for such staunch defensive work? A draw against France and defeats to England and Scotland.

In the one match where they conceded three tries, they beat Wales. It hasn't been overly negative from Ireland, they have just stopped taking their chances when they come.

Anthony Foley will draw plaudits for implementing the system, but Les Kiss must be pulling his hair out, particularly when the captain, Jamie Heaslip, ignores overlaps to take contact like he did early in the second half.

2 Ireland need to review their strength, conditioning and fitness work

The body count is mounting in this year's Six Nations. Ian Madigan was Ireland's 31st player to play in this championship and, after injuries to Fergus McFadden, Brian O'Driscoll and Eoin Reddan, there will be more next week in Rome.

Ireland's players just don't seem to be able to stand up to the physicality of the international game at the moment, despite the system that protects them from themselves.

They are also fading badly in games. The aggregate score of the second half of the four games so far is 47-18 in their opponents' favour. They have yet to come out on top after half-time and were held scoreless by France on Saturday.

The longer games go on, the more Ireland appear to run out of ideas, seeking contact more and more and turning the ball over.

Perhaps it is the toll of the defensive efforts going in, but when their opponents are finding their range in the closing stages, Ireland appear to be out on their feet.

3 You can't win international matches without a bench

Ireland led 13-3 at half-time at Lansdowne Road, but a quick look at the two benches indicated that they would need more after the break to win.

While France could call on Vincent Debaty to inflict damage on the Irish scrum and the bulk and ball-carrying of Sebastien Vahaamahina, Antoine Claasen and Mathieu Bastareaud, Declan Kidney was looking at two highly inexperienced prop forwards, a veteran lock and a talented, if callow, blindside.

In Eoin Reddan, Luke Fitzgerald and Sean Cronin he had some experience, but there is no doubt that the French replacements made more of an impact.

As Ireland flagged, France sent a fresh Bastareaud up the middle time and time again.

And the tired front row failed to prevent the crucial scrum from going 90 degrees, or Steve Walsh's calculation of 90 anyway, when it was needed to lock out and escape from their five-metre line.

Whoever is in charge of the summer tour to the USA and Canada, their primary goal must be to unearth quality, reliable impact substitutes.

4 Momentum isn't as important as it is sometimes made out to be

Wales. It's always bloody Wales, isn't it?

Their regions are woeful, they looked in rag order at the Millennium Stadium on opening day but there they'll be next Saturday, duking it out for the championship with England.

Ireland were clearly superior in Cardiff, but they'll be on the graveyard shift in Rome, irrelevantly playing out the end of a disappointing campaign. They'll watch Wales and wonder about momentum. Remember that?

Last season, all we heard was about how losing to Wales had denied Ireland momentum and everything else that followed was put down to getting off to a losing start.

A year on, the opening was fine but the campaign has stalled. Wales, meanwhile, have proved that it's possible to turn a season around.

5 You don't get to choose how the curtain falls

O'Driscoll's good friend Shane Horgan suggested that there was more to come from the former Ireland captain, but if this was his Dublin farewell then it was a frustrating way to say goodbye.

Noticeably emotional during the anthems, the 34-year-old was forced off with a head injury after a typically courageous display and, despite returning, he was unable to influence the final say.

As Ronan O'Gara found out, players can't write their own endings and, if he retires this summer, O'Driscoll will reflect on his final day in Dublin with plenty of angst.

Irish Independent

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