Tuesday 12 December 2017

Sinead Kissane: No more Mr Nice Guy - Fear of ferocious England side can add ruthlessness to Ireland game

Ireland players look dejected after the RBS Six Nations at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Ireland players look dejected after the RBS Six Nations at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The Ireland players and coaches didn't spoil the moment for fans as they stood for photos and talked about the Wales game at Cardiff Airport on Saturday. Sure, it's easy to be nice but it must be harder when your head is splitting from the defeat the night before.

After their flight landed in Dublin later that afternoon the pilot announced that the plane would have to wait for a berth to be cleared. It was just another disruption in a championship loaded with speed-bumps.

When Joe Schmidt said in January that he was hoping for a top-two finish, it felt like validation of who Ireland were after crossing-off wins over New Zealand and Australia. And why shouldn't Ireland be confident? Why should they keep their naked ambition hidden because, historically, that's the way things are done around here? But ambition can come off as a dirty word to some if it's not lived up to. Despite wins over a poor Italy in Rome and France in the comfort of home, Ireland never fired a real shot in this championship - the kind of shot you fire away from home to signal you're the team to beat, baby.

Ireland went to the Principality Stadium last Friday and played by other people's rules. Wales: We would like to keep the roof closed, do you agree? Ireland: Yes, we agree. We're playing with the deluxe version of hindsight here because it made absolute sense when Rory Best spoke about their decision last Thursday. Schmidt asked Best as hooker and captain and Johnny Sexton as the kicker and they agreed to keep the roof closed. The Welsh must have thought how compliant the Irish visitors were. Maybe what Ireland didn't foresee was the pitch being really wet which was a surprise, according to Schmidt. Ireland didn't want a wet ball from above but apparently got a wet ball from below.

A wetter pitch than expected might have all the rattle of another excuse because we're sick of excuses. The frustration with this Ireland team is they show us how damn brilliant they can be. When they do it one week and don't reach the same level of ruthlessness the next, it's easy to feel short-changed as we try to understand how their system can tip from the threshold of awesome to average so easily. How can Ireland go from scoring five tries against the best team in the world, New Zealand, to three against Scotland, one against France and none against Wales (the nine tries Ireland scored against Italy brings up the tally but Italy were so poor in Rome). Ireland look like a team which needs a new attack coach with some fresh ideas with just two Six Nations to go until the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

But Ireland's ferocious work-rate was also ripped at the seams by some bad decisions against Wales including the disallowed try after Robbie Henshaw joined the maul ahead of ball-carrier Best. I had an eye on Henshaw just before that and he was looking around in desperation to see how he could help his team-mates. Of course, he was right to join the maul with his strength but was guilty of an over-eager entry point. His roar to the closed roof after the try was disallowed summed up what the rest of us were thinking: F**k.

While conceding the championship and mistakes Ireland made after Friday's defeat, Schmidt stated there was still a chance to finish in the top half of the Six Nations table. It had all the effect of being shown a Lada when you've asked for a Maserati. But Ireland can also take their cue from Wales. There seems to be extra cause and effect in this championship where a team's poor performance finds a version of revenge next time out. The magnificent Welsh played like there would be no tomorrow if they lost a second consecutive home game. It's all fine and well to note how Ireland conceded only four penalties to Wales's 10. But the 'sinners' made it count where it mattered on the scoreboard with a try count of 3-0 and a 22-9 bottom line.

The real fear now is if England, who produced their best performance of the championship against Scotland, will tear Ireland at the seams. How will Ireland respond from the corner they've backed themselves into? It seems when Ireland are expected to win the fault-lines appear as they don't live up to others' and, more importantly, their own intentions, but do against New Zealand, Australia and the first Test in South Africa last summer when there was little/no public expectation. As much as we like to think we've moved on from emotion dictating our performance, fear can have a clarifying effect especially against England. Fear, channelled the right way, might make you not take your eye off the ball before you get your hands on it and may not make you kick to the corner when the more sensible option might be to build a lead.

England will come to Dublin to pick a fight and try to bully Ireland but also mix it with the potency of the electric Jonathan Joseph, amongst others. Ireland will need to deliver on moments of opportunity like that training-ground move which resulted in Henshaw's try in the win over England two years ago. Ireland should also drain Andy Farrell of every cent of insider knowledge of the England players down to his own son Owen.

Eddie Jones has already said that Ireland love spoiling parties, especially English parties. Let's live up to this billing. Ireland need to be ruthless spoilers on Saturday. No more Mr Nice Guy.

Irish Independent

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