Thursday 12 December 2019

George Hook: Lack of ingenuity from Ireland and Wales led to a dull brand of rugby

George Hook

If the opening weekend of the Six Nations taught us anything, it's that rugby in the northern hemisphere is bland, boring and stuck in a time warp.

 France tried and failed to play kamikaze rugby, Italy squandered a gilt-edged opportunity for victory in Paris, England flattered to deceive in a dour spectacle at Murrayfield, while Scotland reverted to mediocrity. Rugby fans left to rue a missed opportunity to slay Welsh dragon

And Ireland, despite dominating for large portions of the game in Dublin, somehow managed to blow a 13-point lead to hand Wales a draw that they scarcely deserved.

The caveat for the head coach will be that Ireland were missing several front-line players. That may be so, but it is questionable whether the absentees would have performed any differently under the circumstances, given Ireland's narrow and regimented game-plan.

The lack of penetration and ingenuity from both sides was a testament to the dull brand of rugby that has infiltrated its way into the northern hemisphere. Ireland, save for Conor Murray's first-half try, struggled to break down the Wales defence. Joe Schmidt's anti-offloading stamp was clearly visible.

Wales were comfortably able to soak up the majority of Ireland's attack, safe in the knowledge that the Irish players would not pass the ball out of contact. And because Ireland are not prepared to vary their limited approach with ball in hand, they remain predictable and easy to defend against.

Ireland's Conor Murray scores his side's first try of the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland's Conor Murray scores his side's first try of the game. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Overall, Wales were extremely poor and when Ireland examine video footage of the game, they will wonder how they failed to put the opposition away. A three point return for almost 50 minutes of rugby is paltry.

The game of rugby union has changed immeasurably over the years but some things remain constant. Regardless of level, it has always been impossible to win a rugby match without a scrum. Ireland didn't lose yesterday, but their inability to lock out the scrum allowed Wales back into the game.

The first scrum inside three minutes provided a glimpse of what was to come, with Nathan White under enormous pressure in the Ireland front-row. Incredibly, and to Ireland's relief, the next 15 minutes passed without another set-piece. During that time, Ireland wasted two glorious opportunities for a try but managed to rack up six points from the boot of Jonathan Sexton.

When Murray charged his way over from close range, it looked like Ireland would embrace the momentum and put Wales to the pin of their collar. Instead, Wales were gifted a way back into the game.

It was only a matter of time before Ireland's inept scrummaging came back to haunt them. That White is considered a worthwhile project player is a mystery.

At nearly 35 years of age, his best years are clearly behind him, yet he was picked at tighthead yesterday, while a young, hungry alternative in Tadhg Furlong was left languishing on the bench.

White was turned inside out during the first half against 23-year-old Rob Evans, who was winning just his fourth international cap. Where Schmidt was unwilling to place his faith in Furlong, Warren Gatland was quite happy to back a young prop. Only when Evans was substituted after 55 minutes did Ireland manage to lock out the scrum.

Wales seized the initiative from Ireland's misfiring scrum and they fought back to level the match at the start of the second half. From there, both sides failed to find the killer blow.

The injuries in the Ireland camp are well documented but one cannot help but feel that Schmidt missed a trick with his starting team. Simon Zebo looks great carrying the ball into space, but he remains vulnerable in defence and he was caught out of position on too many occasions against Wales.

Jared Payne was wholly ineffective at outside-centre, where he struggles to find space. Why wasn't he afforded the opportunity to start in his best position at full-back? With Rob Kearney injured and Stuart McCloskey in the form of his life, it was a prime opportunity to test out a different Irish backline.

Too many times Ireland seemed content just to carry the ball into contact and hope that quick, recycled ball would be sufficient to catch Wales off guard. It wasn't, and Murray's first-half try was all that Ireland could manage for their efforts.

Now, with France in Paris to come on Saturday, it remains to be seen if Ireland can gather themselves for another high-intensity showing.

A six-day turnaround won't do much for the walking wounded list and it is now painfully clear that Schmidt is unwilling to deviate from his predictable game-plan.

France were riddled with errors against Italy, but they were also full of invention and offloading. If that game-plan clicks this weekend, Ireland could be in trouble.

For Guy Noves, however, Ireland's blueprint is as it always has been under Schmidt: narrow, predictable and overly reliant on aggression and commitment.

Alas, nothing has changed since the World Cup.

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