Wednesday 18 September 2019

George Hook: Limited game-plan enough for Six Nations but not World Cup

George Hook

Does the end justify the means? The eternal question was answered in spades at the Aviva Stadium when Ireland beat a hugely disappointing England without ever threatening to play a game that was attractive to the eye.

Kicking dominated the Irish strategy with an astonishing 44 kicks from play. It was a throw back to the 1950's. The kicking, with a few notable exceptions, was average. Both sides just kicked the ball as a first option invariably without putting defenders under pressure.

The game-plan reached its nadir when Johnny Sexton, from a prime attacking position, kicked a fruitless high ball over the English line.

Ireland now may be the second most efficient team in the world. Only the All Blacks can execute a game-plan with greater concentration and intensity. Joe Schmidt has recognised that defence is the key to the modern game and is favoured hugely by the laws and referees that implement them.

His team do not make mistakes and give the ball away; they deny their opponents time and space by slowing the ball at the breakdown; and crucially the defensive line is almost impregnable. The result is 10 wins on the trot and a probable championship and a possible Grand Slam.

Professional

Ireland did as RTE commentator Ryle Nugent suggested, a "thoroughly professional job."

Once upon a time England used to come to Lansdowne Road with players selected from the varsity match and the upper class clubs of the south of England. They invariably produced callow performances against men in green driven forward by a succession of Garryowens and passionate crowd baying for blood.

With the advent of professionalism, merit-based selection and full-time training, such performances were believed to be relics of an amateur past.

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England, despite the pre-match build-up, were simply awful and looked their unpaid predecessors. Their much-vaunted physicality was cardboard thin and they lost almost every physical collision. Their lineout was disorganised and Joe Marler and Dan Cole were unable to make supposed best scrum in the world an offensive weapon.

Watchers at home happily did not see Sean O'Brien stagger drunkenly after a seemingly innocuous collision. The dangers of the game are now the biggest threat to its wider acceptance by the public. For the player it is a tragedy because it increases doubts that he can consistently play this game injury free.

The back-row success story was Jordi Murphy who delivered a performance that even a fit Jamie Heaslip would have difficulty emulating. As it happened, the replacement may well have been better suited to the kind of game Ireland played. The youngster was an integral part of his team's defence against Billy Vunipola and his technique at the breakdown was superb. Not for the first time in sport a late replacement has taken his chance with two hands.

International matches are won on small decisions and England's decision to go to the corner rather than take the three points on offer made for different dressing rooms at half time. George Ford who is a fallible kicker may not have relished the shot after missing a relatively easy kick earlier, but responsibility goes with the number 10 jersey.

Sexton, who is easily the best fly-half in Europe, is now vying for the world title. His work-rate, courage and technique are simply astonishing.

Robbie Henshaw and family will be thrilled with his acrobatic try in the corner but it owed a lot to Conor Murray who realised that he had a kick to nothing because the referee had signalled for a penalty to Ireland. The scrum-half remains a poor box kicker but his overall game has improved immeasurably under Schmidt, who, one senses, gives his number 9 strict instructions on how to play the game.

The young tyro who once lost his head under pressure is no more. Eoin Reddan may be a better passer and breaker but in a game dominated by size the Murray is the perfect choice.

Try apart, Henshaw was magnificent in defence and while the jury may be out on his attacking skills, the team is much the better for his physical presence outside Sexton. In the professional era Ireland have never had two better defenders at 10 and 12.

As I walked in to the stadium, a former international made the prescient comment, "If we hold the scrum we will win, fail to contest the set piece and we lose." He was proved correct and it was in no small measure to Mike Ross who just a short time ago seemed superfluous to the needs of his club and country. Schmidt's loyalty to his players once again paid off.

Ireland may become champions of Europe with a game of limited vision. To progress further in the Rugby World Cup than ever before, one has to imagine that something else will be required to beat the giants of the southern hemisphere.

Like the rest of the country, I am happy with a victory at any price even if the romantic in me longs for Ollie Campbell, Tony O'Reilly & Co. Roll on Cardiff but it may be just like Waterloo all those centuries ago, "a dammned close run thing. "

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