Friday 23 February 2018

George Hook: Kidney still refusing to address Irish deficiencies

Sean O'Brien looked like a fish out of water, while Italy's Sergio Parisse offered a performance of total commitment
Sean O'Brien looked like a fish out of water, while Italy's Sergio Parisse offered a performance of total commitment
George Hook

George Hook

It's amazing what a victory does, but few in Lansdowne Road on Saturday were fooled that Ireland's performance against Italy, were it replicated in the clash with France, would be good enough to get a result in Paris.

Jacques Brunel has now replaced Marc Lievremont as the eccentric French coach of the championship, and Italy have been the victims of his illogical selections.

Brunel had a ready-made partnership in Treviso's Tobias Botes at scrum-half and Kris Burton at out-half. Instead the coach decided to go into the match without a goal-kicker and paid the price.

Botes missed three penalties and a straightforward drop-goal, which could have put his team in the lead, and who knows where the fragile Irish confidence might have gone had that happened?

In that crucial first 40 minutes, the green scrum gave away penalties, the line-out looked shaky and Jonathan Sexton kicked like a drain out of hand. Meanwhile, at scrum-half Conor Murray was slow and indecisive and the whole Irish performance was lacklustre.

Happily for Declan Kidney, Keith Earls got over from two yards against paper-thin tackling and the Italians coughed up a soft try just before half-time. A repeat next Sunday of the poor organisation Ireland displayed on Saturday would see the few Irish supporters who will be able to make the trip heading for the exits at half-time. Kidney made a crucial decision to change scrum-halves after an hour and the arrival of Eoin Reddan speeded up the game to something approaching international pace and intensity.

Hugo MacNeill, in a prescient comment, wondered why Irish scrum-halves take two steps when delivering the ball to the fly-half when the recipient needs the ball quickly, and deliver the ball instantly to forwards that need the inside back to move to discomfit the defence.

Tomas O'Leary will head to France with his career in freefall because nobody recognised that crucial fact. Murray now faces a similar dilemma because against Italy he seemed unable to decide whether to pass or run and, more importantly, whether to do it to the left or the right.

The back-row conundrum is still unsolved. Ireland operated for most of the match with Stephen Ferris as the only effective back-row forward.

Jamie Heaslip drifted in and out of the match as his concentration waxed and waned and although the No 8 is a self-confessed non-watcher of rugby videos, he might make an exception this time around to look at Sergio Parisse's performance.


Heaslip is on a par with the Italian captain in terms of skill, but he trails woefully behind in terms of commitment.

Sadly, Sean O'Brien looks like a fish out of water. It is no longer a question of whether the team needs an open-side flanker but rather how much longer an outstanding ball carrier will be neutered by a blinkered coaching policy. On Saturday, the Tullow player was a mundane performer that presented little or no threat to his opponents.

Similarly, the Earls experiment told us nothing that we did not already know. The idea that -- in defiance of the selection policies used by every other country in the world -- Ireland can pick a bantamweight in midfield is nonsense. England's magnificent performance against Wales was predicated by the arrival of Manu Tuilagi in the midfield. Only Kidney thinks that Earls can, in successive weeks, defend against Aurelien Rougerie, Sean Lamont and Tuilagi. The case for Tommy Bowe at 13 is irrefutable.

The Irish back play, despite the five-try feast, was far from incisive. In the first half they failed to accomplish simple overlaps and once again it was all too lateral.

Andrew Trimble's lung-busting try probably copperfastens his place for Paris, but his failure to time passes reminded us why he failed as an international centre.

Ulster recognised that and he has prospered on the wing. If Munster and Ireland did the same for Earls we could have a real strike-force out wide.

One worrying feature was the failure of the Irish scrum to dominate the second-string Italian front-row. Mike Ross looks like he's carrying too much weight and even by his low standards, his ball-carrying lacked any purpose.

Strangely, Ross may be an unlikely victim of the IRFU's policy to monitor the number of games players engage in. Ross needs work and his outstanding performances in the World Cup were on the back of regular outings for Leinster before the competition. Holding eight scrums up in 80 minutes is hardly enough to merit his wages.

Unfortunately Kidney, conservative to the end, will probably name an unchanged side and go down to a brave defeat in Paris. It will make Twickenham a very uncomfortable place on St Patrick's Day.

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