Friday 20 July 2018

Eddie O'Sullivan: Discipline is Kidney's biggest concern

It is very difficult to even begin to describe the feeling the Irish players would have woken up to last Sunday morning in Paris. The fatigue and tiredness would have been more draining, the knocks and bruises more painful. But most of all, a sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs, that will linger there until tomorrow's assembly for the England game.

Root canal surgery, without the anaesthetic, would have been more appealing than beginning the long trek home to begin the autopsy on the game. With expectations being so high on the way to Paris the feeling of disappointment would have been all the more acute on the way back.

This Irish team is now in a strange place. They had been undefeated in their previous 12 games and in the process bagged a Grand Slam, Triple Crown, wins over Argentina and South Africa, while rising to fourth in the IRB rankings. Losing is a relatively new experience for most of these players.

But somebody once said -- "Life is not about how fast you run, or how high you climb, but how well you bounce back."

And bouncing back is exactly what Ireland will want to do, more than anything else.

Despite their fatigue and disappointment, if it was possible, the players would have happily diverted to Twickenham and played England last Sunday. But ultimately having two weeks to prepare for England is exactly what they need, because there are certainly issues to be ironed out after last Saturday.

Selecting the team will be the first test and it will not be as straightforward as it has been for a while.


First of all Jerry Flannery will not be available so Rory Best will start. Rory is a more than capable replacement for Jerry and some opinions would put Rory ahead of Jerry. So no problem there. The difficulty is who will fill the bench spot? Sean Cronin seems to be in line to get the call up. He is an excellent player from the Shannon "front-row conveyor belt", but is also short in the experience stakes at this level.

The line-out functioned well in Paris and Leo Cullen has more than delivered in the first two games. In fact, Ireland won the opposition line-out steals by 4-0 last weekend. Donncha O'Callaghan is still unavailable so there is no reason to consider tinkering with the second row.

The back row will probably also remain intact. Jamie Heaslip was the stand-out Irish performer in Paris. Stephen Ferris wasn't at his best, his lack of match practice showing. But he will be better after getting last week's game under his belt.

Despite scoring Ireland's only try, it wasn't David Wallace's best performance in green. But given his ability to carry ball and the fact that England have always struggled to contain him, his presence in Twickenham will be very important. Moreover he will want the opportunity to redress last week's display.

The big selection conundrums are in the backs and nowhere more than at half-back. Declan Kidney could opt to change one or both. Either way, any change in those pivotal positions is probably the biggest decision to be made. To be fair, Declan is closer to this than anybody and best positioned to make the call. But it will be interesting to see what decision he makes.

Gordon D'Arcy has to return to the centre to partner Brian O'Driscoll. Gordon was doing a lot of damage last week until he had to move to the wing when Rob Kearney went down injured.

Given the imbalance on the bench, that particular injury was the last one that Declan needed. It required two position switches, Keith Earls to full-back and D'Arcy to wing, in order to accommodate Paddy Wallace at centre. It also took Gordon out of the position where he was having the biggest impact.

With only three backs covering seven back-line positions, which includes two players covering the specialist positions of scrum-half and out-half, the selection of the third reserve back is always strategic. Having Jonathan Sexton and Paddy Wallace on the bench together was a luxury, as Paddy can cover out-half as well as centre. If Paddy had been selected to cover both those positions it would have opened up the third spot for a specialist back-three player. It would be unwise to allow a similar imbalance to exist again.

With Kearney definitely unavailable it is possible Earls will remain at full-back. That will open up a position on the wing. The contenders for that position are Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan. Andrew played very well and was unlucky to be dropped for last week's game. At the same time, Horgan is playing fantastic rugby for Leinster at the moment and has an uncanny knack of scoring tries against England -- remember Twickenham 2006 and Croke Park 2007.

Should Earls revert to the wing then the full-back position is wide open. Geordan Murphy would normally be the next man up. But he is woefully short of match practice. In that case Girvan Dempsey, the consummate professional, will certainly not let the side down. Again, like Horgan, he has an extraordinary strike rate against England.

This all adds up to a substantial number of selection headaches for Declan. Certainly more than he has encountered before, for any of his previous team announcements.

But getting selection right is just the first part of the process. There are other issues to be resolved after Paris. The scrum will certainly be a point of attack for England, although we will not be under the same pressure we were against the French and on that basis we should fare better in that department.


Probably the biggest concern is discipline. Ireland are one of the most disciplined teams in world rugby. It is a reputation that has been hard earned and has served us well up until now. But Cian Healy's yellow card, even if it did prevent a possible try, was a very costly infringement and Jerry Flannery's reckless challenge on Alexis Palisson is out of character for this team.

But if Healy's and Flannery's infringements are fixable there is still a bigger pointer to a lack of overall discipline. The infringement count of 13 against Ireland compared to eight against France is worrying. That's 10 more infringements than we had against France in last year's win at Croke Park. Jonny Wilkinson may not have brought his kicking boots to Rome but we have to expect he will be wearing them in Twickenham.

Against France we had more possession and passed the ball over twice as much as they did, but with very little return. The correct gameplan, which is accurately executed, will be our road map to a win next Saturday. There is no doubt that England are not playing well at the moment. They stumbled across the finish line against Italy. Despite winning their first two Six Nations games they are under severe pressure to up their standard of play.

But regardless of their form, beating England at Twickenham is always a big ask. It is worth remembering that despite playing very well in 2004 and 2006, both our wins were only by one score. It won't be any easier this time around.

The stakes are still very high next Saturday because there is so much that can be achieved in this Six Nations. A win against England will keep the Championship alive for us. It would also be the first step on the way to winning another Triple Crown.

Knowing the personalities in the current Irish team and that sick feeling still in the pit of their stomachs, bouncing back next Saturday is their only priority.

Irish Independent

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