Friday 15 December 2017

High stakes and ladders

Ireland camp pulling together in effort to play the 'perfect game'

Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Fergus McFadden share a joke during training at the RDS yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Fergus McFadden share a joke during training at the RDS yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Ironing, climbing and solving jigsaw puzzles are not activities you would necessarily associate with professional rugby, but those were the analogies used yesterday to put Ireland's challenge against Wales into perspective.

After three Six Nations outings that have mixed the sublime with the ruinous, there is a definite sense that things are about to click for Declan Kidney's Irish side in Cardiff this Saturday.

That is not to suggest that they will blow away the Welsh -- there was an ominously potent look to the team selected by Warren Gatland yesterday -- but the impression is of a squad who believe they have successfully addressed the problems that diluted some excellent play against Italy, France and Scotland.


The issues of unforced errors and indiscipline have become wearingly familiar over the past five weeks, but that does not make them any less relevant.

However, as Kidney and Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll stressed yesterday, there is a trust within the camp that these worries have been ironed out, which is where the aforementioned activities come in.

"We are so far up the ladder, there are another few rungs to go, if we climb another rung or two I think we will be a difficult side to play against and that's what we want," said Kidney.

"We will never hold ourselves out as being unbeatable or anything, but we want to make ourselves a difficult side to beat, so that when sides are playing against Ireland they are not looking forward to it.

"You are always trying to string together that 80-minute performance, but realistically the opposition are going to have their good patches and it's how you ride that out. I've seen some very good defensive moments (from Ireland), I've seen some very good attacking moments, so it's marrying that together for the 80 minutes.

"Obviously, there have been a few things that have happened that are within our control to fix and, if we get those right, the jigsaw will come together. You are always looking for that perfect game -- by definition you can only play the best game of your life once, so that's what we are striving for," he added.

By sticking with the same 22 that won narrowly in Scotland, Kidney is demonstrating his conviction that he has the right personnel to ascend to the desired level and it is hard to quibble too much with this selection.

One area of debate is the option of a back-row line-out option on the bench, with Kevin McLaughlin and Rhys Ruddock the two leading candidates, but, while Denis Leamy is not a noted line-out forward, Kidney will remember the Cashel man's powerful display after replacing Stephen Ferris early on into their Grand Slam-winning outing at the same venue two years ago.

Also, in the interests of widening Ireland's attacking options, there was a strong case for including Fergus McFadden or Andrew Trimble among the replacements ahead of Paddy Wallace.

Aside from those bench issues, this 'as you were' selection has considerable merit -- with the proviso that, with three games to adjust to their Six Nations prerogatives, the players show the benefit of all their mid-term activities.

That means Luke Fitzgerald locating security under the high ball to complement his running game which looks to be nearing full tilt, Ireland's line-out overcoming its height deficiency to hit Gert Smal's desired target of 95pc success and, of course, cutting down the penalties to a single-figure sum.

The interpretations of referee Jonathan Kaplan could be beneficial in this regard. He knows the Irish well and they him, while Kidney is happy the thorny issue of the tackle/maul will be successfully policed.

"From what we've seen in the Super 15, Jonathan has been calling a maul when he sees it as a maul and that is always helpful," said Kidney.

"Jonathan has been recognising when it is a maul. We have been watching the Super 15, we are told that it will be the same interpretations, I'm sure it will be. Jonathan is an excellent referee, he's refereed us I think well above a dozen times, he knows us well.

"We will be hoping to get our share of the penalties, we haven't had a whole lot of penalties awarded to us. I'm sure that will balance out. But I'm not going to be asking the referee to take a look at anything they are doing to try and curry favour, I just want him to go out and play the game the way he sees it and referee what he sees in front of him."

O'Driscoll is approaching Saturday's showdown in a defiantly optimistic manner and, while readily acknowledging the cons from Ireland's three Six Nations outings, the captain prefers to focus on the pros.

"We're looking forward to it and I really don't see it as we're in as bad a position as a lot of the negativity that has surrounded the team," said the Ireland captain.

"Some of it has been justified, but I really think that has clouded over the scores we've created and the amount of tries that we've managed to score and there hasn't been much of a reference to that.

"I'm the eternal optimist, what's the point in dwelling on the negatives? If we can outscore teams three tries to zero than I think it's a small fix in getting our discipline right and that excites me."

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