Monday 22 January 2018

Radical changes required to restore Irish vision

Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan anxiously watches the final moments of the action in Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan anxiously watches the final moments of the action in Murrayfield. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
George Hook

George Hook

Yesterday at Murrayfield, Ireland were incapable of putting away possibly the worst team in world rugby. Even lowly Italy will travel to Edinburgh with high hopes of a victory.

The visitors were on the rack for the last quarter and were helped by Scotland's unwillingness to assay a drop goal and gain a creditable draw. It said something about their regard for Ireland as a competitive force.

There is now an acceptance in Irish rugby for winning ugly. We are in denial of a team heading towards a World Cup in the same declining spiral as Eddie O'Sullivan's squad of four years ago. Alone of the teams in this championship, the Ireland players seem incapable of understanding the laws of the game and the management seems powerless to change their mindset.

The substitution policy was indicative of a coach without a clear vision. As the game became just a one-score contest, we saw a team with a hooker who could not throw, a flanker with a propensity to give away penalties and an out-half without a proven ability to close out a game. True to form, Jonny Sexton refused to play the game in the right areas of the pitch.

Rarely before a Test match have there been more contradictory messages coming out of an Irish camp. The captain disagreed with the coaches about the communication levels; and in an extraordinary interview, Jamie Heaslip seemed to question Declan Kidney's right to select the team. Little wonder then that Ireland needed the bonding chemistry of an away win.

Saturday's games had been instructive, but none more so than the one in Rome. Wales are an average side, hugely reliant on the skills of James Hook. The feeling at the full-time whistle was that Cardiff would be no less an intimidating place than Murrayfield.

However, Italy's form will be a worry for Declan Kidney looking ahead to the final World Cup pool fixture against the Azzurri in October in Dunedin. Unlike Ireland, Nick Mallett has forged a backline that runs at space rather than bodies and forwards who really understand that continuity is the product of an early offload.

Martin Castrogiovanni was a revelation in the way he kept the ball alive in open field and the peerless Sergio Parisse showed Heaslip and Sean O'Brien how an intelligent back-row can act as a conduit between backs and forwards.

Italy, unlike Ireland, actually have a policy to put people into space. Only a disastrous day at the line-out and poor place-kicking cost them a famous victory.

Scotland had a huge advantage at the line-out and had clearly targeted the Irish set-piece. The Scottish pack was stacked with big men to narrow Rory Best's targets at the line-outs and Ireland were never comfortable there. Predictably, it got worse with the arrival of Sean Cronin.

Moray Low, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen showed one change from the unit embarrassed by France. It says something about the new Irish scrum that we no longer hold our breath at the put-in and it now presents real attacking possibilities. The advance at the scrum has been negatively balanced by a failure at the line-out.

Over a decade ago, Jim Telfer gave his country a simple game plan based on ferocious rucking. Yesterday under Andy Robinson, it seemed as if time had stood still and his team played an old-fashioned game plan of forwards carrying the ball and keeping possession until a hole appears.

Ireland were playing with a minority of ball, self-inflicted wounds and poor back play. Ronan O'Gara was the difference. Two great kicks in the first half-hour set up field position and Ireland profited to the tune of 14 points.

After a week of discussion about the concession of penalties, Ireland were offside at the first ruck. Despite a seven-point bonus courtesy of Heaslip's converted try, the penalties came thick and fast and opportunities were given to a team that has proven incapable of scoring tries. Five penalties arrived in the first quarter; three of them within kicking range.

The penalty count at half-time was 9-2 against Ireland. Interestingly, referee Nigel Owens was lenient towards Ireland's serial offending, while a yellow card was brandished at Jacobsen after two scrum offences. Following George Clancy's eccentric refereeing of the French scrum on Saturday and his unwillingness to yellow-card Nick Easter, is it any wonder players and coaches are confused?

There is no doubt that Kidney's selection reflected the pressure of needing a win and, in O'Gara, Ireland had the supreme kicker and the man most likely to implement a winning strategic plan.

Scotland were simply awful. Heaslip strolled over when Nick de Luca charged at the wrong attacker and Eoin Reddan strolled over amid similar defensive chaos.

But Ireland made winning extremely difficult. O'Brien made a mockery of Scottish tackling, but rarely was the clear-out effective at the ruck. He made huge territorial inroads and left the defence shy on numbers, but the Scots had ample time to recover.

Personnel changes are not the issue for Kidney. The problem is clearly one of morale, organisation and direction. Winning a Triple Crown could disguise the failures and postpone the radical surgery required.

Irish Independent

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