Monday 18 December 2017

Video George Hook: Sterile Ireland step closer to abyss

Wales' George North bulldozes his way passed Fergus McFadden
Wales' George North bulldozes his way passed Fergus McFadden

YET again, Ireland were duly punished for their negative, sterile rugby game plan. Had Ireland won, it would have been a travesty and this team continued its lemming-like drift towards the abyss.

The team is becoming increasingly irrelevant in world rugby.

One wonders if the wit and invention resides in the management team to make the hard choices required to fix the problem.

As in Wellington, the Irish back-row of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris were overpowered by a Wales unit, initially short one from the World Cup and for the second half short the captain and openside Sam Warburton.

The so-called best backrow in the world was shown up to be the unbalanced unit it has always been. Ireland are doomed in Paris unless that failure is rectified.

However, saddest of all, was the failure of Ireland, with the game won, to confine Wales to their own half with only three minutes left.

Ronan O’Gara’s restart from the George North try was won by Wales and they went 70 metres downfield by the simple expedient of passing the ball.

Ferris then committed the unforgivable mistake of a stupid tackle to lose the match for his side. Ireland’s victory over a belowstrength Australia covered up the multitude of deficiencies that have beset this side since the Grand Slam season.

The loss of Brian O’Driscoll was no excuse as Ireland’s back play is so ponderous that even the great man would not have delivered success.

The national team stands indicted of ignoring the progress made by the top nations.

While the rest of the world develops openside flankers, dynamic prop forwards and backs the size of forwards, we are trapped in a time warp of imagining that we have a golden generation of players.

One wonders who will pay the price for this defeat. Conor Murray never made a break in 80 minutes, but was behind a pack that never threatened to give him quick ball.

Ferris should pay for his indiscretion or O’Brien for his anonymity or Heaslip for his lack of involvement.

A diminutive midfield cannot be expected to defend against a French backline similar in size to Wales’ – Tommy Bowe must come in to the centre to add some avoirdupois.

Only at the line-out did Ireland do better than parity. Had the visitors won in that department, then it could have been a cricket score.

Wales took every ball off the top and used the wings to cross the gain line, while Ireland simply shovelled the ball across the line; Andrew Trimble’s pass to Heaslip with a simple two-on-one beckoning demonstrated the gulf between the sides.

The game opened with Ireland surviving by luck rather than judgment.

The pack were asleep as Bradley Davies took off from a line-out; North bamboozled the defence in a thrust up the left wing; and the video official denied Wales a try.

Things went even better for the home team when Wayne Barnes allowed Bowe to stay on the pitch after a clear slap-down to stop a Welsh overlap.

Wales didn’t even get a penalty for their trouble. Ireland were on the back foot for the entire first half yet went in at the break in front.

It was a travesty of what had happened on the field.

The first Welsh try by Jonathan Davies off a sublime transfer by Rhys Priestland showed up the failure of Irish pre-match planning.

Warren Gatland has always used the narrow side as an attacking option and time and time again, Ireland were a man or more short on that side. So much for video analysis!

Wales now rival France for their ability to work in confined spaces.

Rhys Priestland confirmed the poor kicking form first shown in Thomond Park, but Wales had the luxury of having Leigh Halfpenny to take over.

Although Gatland was beset by injuries, he showed courage in dropping Alex Cuthbert at half-time and bringing on James Hook.

That change almost offset the loss of Warburton as Wales now had threats across the pitch and the Irish defence creaked too often.

The IRB once more demonstrated their lack of will on tackles above the horizontal.

Barnes was hopelessly wrong not to issue a red card to Bradley Davies for a dreadful tackle on Donnacha Ryan – which was off the ball to boot.

The referee compounded the error with Ferris. One wonders if the governing body is seriously concerned about the health of its players and the example to young participants.

Alain Rolland remains a beacon of hope for brave and sensible refereeing. This was a disastrous result for country, coach and team.

There is no prospect of a high finish in the championship, Gatland is heir apparent to the Lions coaching job and Ireland may be entering a dark period in its rugby history.

The result confirmed that talent is harnessed by coaches that can deliver a clear policy.

The Heineken Cup is not a barometer of a nation’s rugby health and the derided policy of the IRFU in placing a partial ban on foreign players may yet be seen as part of the answer to our problems.

One can hardly say, roll on Paris.

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