Saturday 25 November 2017

George Hook: How Ireland can defend so abysmally is breathtaking

George Hook

George Hook

Ireland, by beating Scotland 35-25 on Saturday, cleared the coach's low bar of being third in the Six Nations Championship, but managed to do so without beating England, France or Wales. It had all the attributes of "a win, is a win, is a win."

The surprising feature of the campaign was that it was greeted with universal acclaim by the cognoscenti, accompanied by columns pleading with the coach to stay at the helm. Incredibly, this after the team scored three tries from less than a yard and one from a Leonardo Sarto-like disaster by the Scottish defence.

In contrast, the defence leaked seven tries in its last three games without a hand being laid on the try-scorer. The excuse offered was the lack of a defence coach.

Apparently Ireland's head coach does not do defence. How an international team with pretensions to success can defend so abysmally is breathtaking. Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of positioning; a look at the video for Richie Gray's try would prompt questions by the coach of the local U-13s.

Rarely, if ever, in 60 years of watching rugby at Lansdowne Road, have I seen a lock forward stride over unopposed from 15 yards; the old cliche of "suck em in, and spread it wide" only works against Ireland. The answer would appear to be a member from the failed England set-up that was deemed surplus to requirements by the management, which delivered a Grand Slam.

The Joe Schmidt game-plan bears some analysis. I have long believed that the one-dimensional attack predicated on poor selection has been a problem for this team and no effort has been made to redress the problem since the thrashing by Argentina. Why has the team dominated large portions of games, only to fail to deliver a knockout?

The answer may be more complex than at first sight.

Ireland's game-plan was predicated on brute physicality in possession, but offered little in the way of genuine creativity. In each of the five championship games, Ireland employed crash-ball tactics that demanded a huge physical effort just to protect possession and it left the players exposed to injury and fatigue.

Schmidt's tactics, while relatively simple in concept, left little room for error. The players had to exert maximum effort for 80 minutes. It was a punishing system.

The consequences of this physical, direct style of play are evidenced by Ireland's poor second-half return in the majority of the last five games. Bigger, stronger opponents were able to fight their way back into the game in the second half as Ireland emptied.

In the three matches Ireland failed to win, they had the winning of the contest before a fall-off in performance and energy levels in the second half put paid to their ambitions. It was frustrating to watch, but, presumably, disheartening for the players. Even the mighty South Africans, with their bulk and physique, would struggle to implement such an exhausting system. Applying it to Ireland is simplistic and not in keeping with the traditions or current strengths of the game in this country.

So it is on to South Africa for a three-Test series. The return of the injured players may make a difference, but the rest of 2016 looks like being a long hard slog.

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