Tuesday 20 February 2018

George Hook: Now is the time for total overhaul

On mature reflection, this was not as good a performance by Ireland than it seemed to have been just after 6.30 on Saturday evening.

The French have now gone seven games without a victory in the championship – one has to go all the way back to 1927 to find a similar run. It is a stunning reflection on the stewardship of Philippe Saint-Andre.

Yet again Ireland's second-half performance allowed their opponents off the hook. The last points registered by the home team were a penalty by Paddy Jackson in the 32nd minute. Ireland managed just one line-break in the entire game, conceded more penalties and had a very bad day at the scrum.

Such was their difficulty at the set-piece that Ireland lost four of their six scrums and Declan Kidney did not dare use a substitute prop. The Irish pack was forced to soldier on almost unchanged, while the French brought on reinforcements at will. That power gave Saint-Andre a draw he did not deserve.

butchered

Nearing half-time, Ireland led 13-3 and Jamie Heaslip butchered a yawning overlap. If Ireland had gone 17 points ahead, there would have been no way back for the French.

In the second half Keith Earls was fairly shoulder-charged in the eyes of the referee and the TMO. There was never a case for a penalty try, but neither was there a case for a penalty or a yellow card. And in the dying seconds of the game, Freddie Michalak kicked the ball dead in the final demonstration of his inability to play at this level.

Yet again Ireland could not convert a clear territorial and possession advantage into points and ultimate victory. Jackson, who displayed confidence and certainty when presented with kicking opportunities, had an ordinary game.

Such was the negativity before the match that an average performance by him was always going to be seen as a triumph. He rarely took on anything himself, did little more than shovel the ball onto his outsides and stood so deep that to kick was the only option.

The result was that Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Marshall never looked like discomfiting their opponents. Conor Murray probably had his best game for Ireland and deservedly won the man of the match award, before being surprisingly substituted for Eoin Reddan. It was yet another of the inexplicable decisions made by the coach this year.

Murray had displayed outstanding maturity in sheltering his rookie partner. Two occasions apart, his kicks had enough height and distance to give his team-mates a chance to recover the ball.

He remains a slow passer of the ball who takes a step or two too much, but yesterday, given the Ireland game plan, that was never going to make a difference. Such was the quality of Murray's kicking, the French back three were invariably forced to return the ball to touch, giving Ireland the preponderance of the line-outs.

A secure set-piece based on Donnacha Ryan meant that Ireland were able to keep possession for long periods even though they threatened little in attack.

By dint of a magnificent defensive performance, the hosts almost pulled off a victory, but the weight of numbers eventually told. As expected, France were ill-served by Michalak, who had a dreadful game and never put Ireland under pressure with his kicking from hand or the ground.

More importantly, he was unable to bring his outside backs into the game. He appeared to have only one ploy, which was to manufacture a switch with his centres. Thus, the magnificent Wesley Fofana was reduced to crashing the ball up the middle. It was meat and drink to the Irish defence.

Before the match there was speculation that this might be O'Driscoll's last game for Ireland in the Aviva. Watching him walk down the tunnel at the end of the game, one wondered if it might be his last game ever in a green shirt.

His remarkable bravery in coming back in the last 10 minutes of the game made a mockery of the coach's decision to strip him of the captaincy. However, this extraordinary man, this warrior and this giant among rugby players must be protected from himself.

Rome now awaits. The mental strength of the Irish players is clearly stronger than most of their opponents in that they can still deliver performances even when decimated by injury.

However, bravery is not enough. The lack of a legitimate openside flanker, the weakness at the scrum and a paucity of innovative back-line solutions will make it very difficult for this team to compete, even against an average side like Italy.

Kidney may well be helped by the return of Jonny Sexton, but that addition may be compromised by other injuries picked up on Saturday.

This has been a bad 12 months for the Irish team and can only be solved by a new vision and a new approach.

The powers that be will have failed this extraordinary group of young men if they simply tinker around the edges of the problem by replacing the coach. There needs to be root and branch changes in the game, all the way to schools level.

We hear rumours of a great national plan to be announced by the IRFU in the coming weeks. We suspect it may look like a camel as the committee try to design a horse.

Irish Independent

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