Wednesday 21 February 2018

Kidney must learn lesson as set piece failure proves undoing

It was predictable that sooner or later Ireland's deficiencies would bite them in the rear end, writes George Hook

George Hook

George Hook

IT was hard to understand the accepted wisdom that Scotland would roll over to present Ireland with its fifth Triple Crown in seven years.

The Scots came armed with one of the best back rows in the championship, aided by a good scrum and a miserable defence. Meanwhile, Ireland had proved suspect at the set piece and failed to get a majority of territory and possession. Depending on a back line to defeat the statistical deficiencies is a hardly a recipe for Ireland's climb up the world rankings.

Tommy Bowe's entry to the line is reaching genius levels. Early on, there was his trademark entry off a Tomas O'Leary but later he came in off his wing, outside the centres, to create space and time for Keith Earls.

The first quarter was frenetic and one thought the Hong Kong Sevens had come early. The opening try for Brian O'Driscoll involved a wonderful bit of skill from Jonny Sexton, even if it was amazing he was not pulled for the killer forward pass. But the actual build-up to it was very good. It was exciting stuff in those early stages, but Ireland became predictable and the Scots grew in confidence as they came to terms with the pace of the Irish attack.

Ireland were forced to run because one suspects their pre-match concerns about the scrum and line-out came to pass. Cian Healy was in constant difficulty against Euan Murray and the referee gave a rash of decisions against the green set piece.

The Irish scrum and lineout foundered against a superior unit. Healy, with the impetuosity off youth, gave a newspaper interview before the game full of confidence in his ability to handle strong scrummaging prop forwards. He learned a valuable lesson in keeping his powder dry. The young man was exceedingly lucky to stay on the pitch as referee Jonathan Kaplan did not issue a card when he went down at successive scrums and was penalised every time. Kaplan compounded his error by then penalising Murray for collapsing a scrum on a Scottish put-in no less.

Irish back play consistently found space outside but speed had a price -- handling and passing errors abounded. It was the most frenetic start to a game since Ireland lost their cumulative heads in Paris under Eddie O'Sullivan. The pressure went back on the kicking and Sexton, for all his inestimable attacking skills, proved vulnerable under the pressure of kicking penalties to keep his side in the game.

Sexton's meteoric rise to fame followed his elevation at Leinster when Felipe Contepomi was injured in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup last season. The young man has never fought the fires of tension experienced by Ronan O'Gara.

Declan Kidney faced one of the biggest decisions of his career at Ireland; whether or not to change his fly-half. His decision prompted an embarrassing occasion for the young man as he was forced to endure the ignominy of watching O'Gara await his opportunity as a crucial three points was on offer. Kidney could not have known that a penalty would be awarded but it was a sad sight. Trailing by seven points, Ireland were to be directed by the coolest and most competitive mind in world rugby.

It was 50 minutes before Paul O'Connell finally got the message that keeping it tight could have a purpose. A huge maul gave Ireland a penalty and three points, but the pressure of a disastrous line-out forced his team to try for the third consecutive game to win with a minority of possession.

The Geordan Murphy versus Ronan Kearney debate grew legs as the Leicester player delivered an assured performance when the Irish back line was at its most inventive. Kearney prospered on the Lions tour because South Africa kicked incessantly to his strong point; his high fielding. The Leinster player has never been comfortable with the ball in hand, invariably carrying it under one arm. His game resembles Kerry football of the Fifties, catch and kick.

Gordon D'Arcy was clearly not fit but Kidney had no choice as he had used the replacements. Most international teams would not carry two fly-halves but it appears to me that Kidney was not totally convinced of Sexton. Paddy Wallace could have replaced D'Arcy if the coach was certain that his first choice No 10 would last 80 minutes.

The replacement saga took a real twist when Kidney refused to try and solve his line-out crisis by bringing Leo Cullen on the pitch. It was an incomprehensible decision as his line-out imploded, losing more than half its own throws.

Surprisingly, one area where Ireland delivered was at openside flanker where David Wallace worked his socks off to carry the ball for his team. It was just as well, as the Irish back row was outplayed by the Scots, who were constantly on the front foot from a dominant scrum and line-out.

I said last November Scotland were going to be the dark horses of the championship. We are supposedly the fourth or fifth best team in the world but we have a scrum that is in truth 12th-ranked, we have a line-out that when push comes to shove is under pressure without Jerry Flannery.

This result, though, is no more or less than a disaster but it was predictable that sooner or later Ireland's deficiencies would bite them in the rear end. The summer tour will be painful. The critics that suggested a team cannot win with a minority of possession were proved right.

Sunday Independent

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