Thursday 22 February 2018

Regained morale crucial for life on the fine margins

Kidney's men must keep making full use of limited opportunities, writes Jim Glennon

In the course of their ignominious retreat from Paris three weeks ago, the more optimistic among the thousands of war-weary Ireland fans drew consolation from the reassurance of the old adage that a good team doesn't turn into a bad one overnight.

Thankfully, the wisdom of this truism was reinforced at Twickenham last Saturday as pride was restored in stirring fashion. Crucially, also, Ireland have momentum again with a Triple Crown, and perhaps a Championship title, still on the table.

But -- and there is a but -- issues remain which must be addressed. Primary among them is determining who starts at out-half; Sexton or O'Gara? Comparisons have been drawn with the great Campbell v Ward joust but these are not entirely valid. In fact, there's one crucial difference, in that tactical substitutions weren't allowed in that era.

I have been on record for some time now favouring Sexton, but Twickenham showed the debate in a new light in terms of using the pair tactically on a game-to-game basis, and at different stages within games too. Frankly, we are blessed to have two players of such high calibre in the same position -- and the pivotal one too -- and while I'm strongly of the mind that Sexton is in possession of the wider repertoire, and that he should therefore be on the pitch from the start, the prospect of O'Gara's appearance from the bench at any time is enough to have video analysts across the rugby world working overtime.

The simple fact remains that, even allowing for the heroics of Twickenham, the abiding memory of the tournament to date remains the thrashing at the hands of the French. Looking at last year's Grand Slam, together with last weekend's game, the common theme is of a ruthlessly clinical Ireland eking out points from the slimmest of opportunities and the meanest of defences. Whether in the Croke Park defeat of England, the decider in Cardiff or Twickenham last week, Ireland, consigned to the back foot for much of the game, eventually emerged on the right side of the scoreboard primarily because of their capacity to defend superbly, survive on scraps of possession, and then strike lethally, given the opportunity.

The downside of life on these fine margins is the potential for an appropriately equipped team to completely freeze us out, as France did. With the World Cup only 18 months away, management teams of all the major contenders will be keenly dissecting our Paris performance.

Our line-out is an obvious strength, on the opposition's throw as much as on our own, but the fact remains that a feature of the current game is less kicking to touch in favour of applying pressure on the opponent through long kicking and hard chasing. As a consequence, one of our major strengths is somewhat diluted.

Nor is there much comfort to be drawn from our scrum, which is a major area of weakness. Admittedly, and even more so than the line-out, the frequency of this set piece has dramatically decreased in recent years, but the fact remains that the sheer physical effort needed to retain our own ball in this area, combined with a high penalty count against us, renders it a major liability. This was there for all to see last week. There are certainly more fearsome scrummaging units than England's around, but their dominance was striking, regardless of the merits of Tony Buckley's cameo performance.

Elsewhere in the pack, the back row was rightly lauded last week for an almost freakishly good display in defence, and some top-notch ball carrying too. However, while Stephen Ferris is the ultimate wrecking ball on the blindside, and Jamie Heaslip continues to consolidate his status as one of the best around at eight, there is a growing feeling that the forward unit would be more effective with a traditional groundhog openside in the Keith Gleeson mould packing down alongside them. David Wallace is a top-quality player and a superb athlete but I have come to question whether his particular skill set is best suited to this team's current requirements.

Much has been made of the collective impact of the substitutions last week and, in my opinion, the introduction of Shane Jennings was particularly effective. Jennings, for myriad reasons, has never managed to really announce himself on the international stage but did perform very effectively in his limited time on the Twickenham pitch. To my mind, he is worth a start against Wales, as the style of his game would be complementary to Ferris and Heaslip, and would provide the Irish back row with the best fetcher at our disposal. For next week, he would also provide the bonus of a real challenge for Wales' key linkman, Martyn Williams.

Two obstacles now block the road to another Triple Crown. The troops, though battle-scarred, are beleaguered no longer; morale is high, the army is well resourced. Still plenty to look forward to.

Sunday Independent

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