Ireland must find cutting edge to fulfil potential
JOE SCHMIDT talks about Test rugby being a world of small margins, but it's the big moments that will haunt his team this week.
Asked where it had gone wrong against Wales, Rob Kearney yesterday pointed to the team being outplayed in areas of traditional strength: their lineout, their kicking game and their discipline, while also lamenting their poor start. He also conceded that too many players had not performed and, while you won't hear them it uttered publicly, referee Wayne Barnes isn't be a popular figure around Carton House this week.
"The things that went wrong for us are our strengths," Kearney said. "That's frustrating, but the positive is that we can fix it very easily."
There is little doubt that Schmidt is hammering home messages about those areas this week, but the biggest concern emanating from the side's first defeat in 11 Test matches is their inability to take the chances that produced themselves.
When the fundamentals broke down, Ireland went to their running game and, while they were able to keep the ball and make gains, they were never able to breach the incredible Welsh rearguard.
Saturday's game against Scotland is Ireland's last competitive outing until the World Cup and, on October 11, they will return to the Millennium Stadium for their pivotal Pool D clash against France. If they can stamp out their profligacy and sort out their attacking game, then there will be nothing to stop them getting to a first semi-final and potentially beyond.
There were four moments in particular that must have had Schmidt ready to smash the glass in his coaching box.
On 20 minutes, with the score 12-3 and Wayne Barnes playing advantage, Sean O'Brien chose to charge into two forwards rather than release Johnny Sexton off his shoulder with Ireland numbers up in the backs.
Fourteen minutes later and with Wales down to 14 men, Paul O'Connell took a beautiful line off a Sexton pass and Jared Payne charged into the 22.
Barnes' arm went into the air and Sexton is supported by a pod of forwards with space in front of them, but opts to go himself and gets swallowed up. He knocks over the penalty to make it 15-9, but the rewards could have been greater.
The biggest moments of regret will come from their second-half pounding of the Welsh line. Over the course of eight minutes, every Irish player touched the ball at least once as Wales made tackle after tackle.
Of the 50 phases, Ireland used a pick and go or one-out runner 36 times and the closest they came to scoring was with Tommy Bowe off the back of the rolling maul after a penalty and Murray's subsequent dig.
After Wales had scored their try, the next spurned chance saw Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe scream for the ball after Eoin Reddan had tapped a quick penalty under the posts and gone himself.
The backs waved their arms, but Peter O'Mahony tried an off-balance pass to Cian Healy and the prop knocked on. Wales defended bravely and brilliantly, but a team as good as Ireland should have scored from open play on Saturday.
The concern is that this is not an isolated incident. If they continue their average of one try a game, Schmidt's side are on track to equal a record low try-scoring total of five set in 2013.
They scored 16 last season, but Kearney isn't concerned by the poor return with ball in hand to date.
"I don't think it is an area that Ireland are massively under performing in comparison to the other teams," he said.
"The amount of tries scored in this competition, right across the board, over the last four rounds have been quite minimal.
"While it is frustrating a little bit that we are not scoring those tries, sometimes you have to look where the other teams are and if you can see there is a little bit of a trend, it eases that frustration a little bit."
He has a point, even if Ireland are joint-last on the tries-scored table alongside France with four. England lead the way with 11, Italy have six and Wales and Scotland have five apiece. It hasn't been a vintage tournament.
Schmidt has been unhappy with criticism of Ireland's perceived reliance on their kicking game, pointing to their position as the leading passing team in the tournament.
They have made 575 carries and 718 passes, yet just one of their tries - Tommy O'Donnell's against Italy - has come from a pass. Indeed, discounting the rout against Georgia last November, it is the only try they have scored from a pass this season.
Schmidt's trademark starter-plays are yielding gain-line advances, but not the tries they led to with Leinster and both Wales and England spoke of how pleased they were with how they had dealt with the tricks.
When they found Wales were more than a match in the air, Ireland took to the ground and were able to hold possession for long phases and punch holes in the home side's rearguard.
"We have good confidence in our running game," Kearney said. "We were just getting a lot of value from our kicking game. If you launch up a ball and it travels 40 metres and you get it back, that is the equivalent of a 40-yard line-break which is very hard to come by.
"I think the other side of that is maybe we were chasing the game a bit from early so maybe we were forced to keep the ball in hand a little bit more and try and go after the game a little bit."
Kearney was on hand when Payne and Bowe were screaming for the wide ball before Healy's knock-on, standing behind Jamie Heaslip who was the option at first-receiver.
"Ideally, it would have gone wide and we may have scored in the corner. Cardiff is pretty loud, as you well know, and in the heat of the moment, when you're 30 phases deep, it can be difficult," he said.
"Sometimes there are breakdowns and it is solely a lack of communication or maybe communication is there but it's just not heard. One of the areas we potentially need to work on is we should be able to get a little bit better at seeing these things rather than relying on our ears and hearing.
"The Welsh defended superbly well, had 14 up on their line. It looked a little bit the longer we had the ball, the more energy they got from that and they pushed us back a couple of metres every time.
"There is definitely things we need to do to be more explosive in those areas to try and make a bit more ground. You have to give a huge amount of credit to the way the Welsh defended their own line to the way they defended their own line."
This weekend, Ireland can retain their title if they can outscore Wales and England on the final day and finish ahead on points difference.
Scotland have conceded eight tries in four games and that count would be far more had England shown more composure last weekend when they made 17 clean breaks.
Stuart Lancaster's side have been the best attacking force in this season's competition but their opponents France, along with Ireland, have the stingiest defence.
The title remains within Ireland's grasp if they can find the clinical edge that has evaded them to date. With the World Cup looming, they could do with locating it sooner rather than later.