Smal confident fundamentals will fall into place
Flawed fundamentals will mock expansive pretensions in any field.
During the November Internationals, Ireland's set-piece basics were held up to such wide ridicule that even their author -- South African World Cup winner and Irish forwards coach Gert Smal -- saw fit to publicly lambaste the risible efforts.
From fumbled restart to concertinaing scrum, from farcical line-out to poorly executed breakdown, Ireland's inability to manage the primary components of the game, those basic elements whereby one retains possession of the football, seemed beyond them for so much of that miserable month.
Smal indicated that his side were hampered by a limited amount of preparation time; that excuse doesn't hold water this time.
The return of Paul O'Connell, whose majesty of the skies will provide a welcome boon to his struggling pack, offers ballast to smooth Smal's travails.
Scrum coach Greg Feek's presence is bound to have some impact, as we have already seen in the unseemly haste of the selectors to re-acquaint themselves with the previously ignored Mike Ross -- especially now that Tony Buckley has once again drifted off the scene, with worrying familiarity.
Smal asserts that Ireland's efforts will improve on November, yet one sincerely hopes that this optimism is not merely resting on the shoulders of Messrs Feek and O'Connell.
"It is a work in progress and working with the front row specifically," says Smal of Feek's influence since pitching up in Leinster, before being added to the extensive Irish coaching ticket.
"I always believe that in terms of front-row coaching, it is important to have somebody who has been there, so he is able to feel that front-row game and have really accurate coaching there and that is why we brought Greg in.
"With the kind of backs we have it is absolutely the right decision to try and beef up our scrums and to get good first-phase possession from that and launch our backs.
"In terms of the line-outs, we have also looked at ways to maximise the players in the course of the week so we have cut everything to the bone.
"That's a process that we have learned, that we have to spend a bit more time on that and we have done that the last week. With experience also back in the team we would hope that that will all go better."
Smal admits that O'Connell's experience has already brought a "different feeling to the team", which reflects rather poorly on those he left behind during November.
Ross, mysteriously, was not one of them, apparently because of a reluctance to extend himself in the varying longeurs between scrums; in fairness, Michael Cheika shared this view in his last season with Leinster. So what has changed between then and now, apart from Buckley's latest disappearing act?
"I think for the last two years he has improved himself dramatically," says Smal. "Continuously, we have been in contact with him and supporting him as much as we can. We've sat down with him and had one-on-ones with him, explained to him what we want him to work on.
"He really worked very hard on those aspects. If it has to be that he has to play, I think he deserves a chance. He has worked on his general play. He's a good scrummager. His general plan is to see how big an impact he can have."
Where once Ross' critics charged that he needed to hail a taxi after every scrum, Smal points to a significant improvement there: "Absolutely, since he joined Leinster he has made a massive improvement."
With Buckley's star waning -- Ross may yet be pitched into Munster with more than a wink and nudge from IRFU central command -- Italy will provide a stern test of both Ross and Ireland's improvements in the forward exchanges.
"We are very satisfied about where he is at the moment," concludes Smal. However, the South African once claimed Buckley was potentially world-class so Ross will forgive supporters should they pause before making judgment.