Monday 23 April 2018

George Hook: Old failings still glaringly obvious against third-rate foes

Simon Zebo, Ireland, is tackled by Marco Fuser and Mattia Bellini, Italy
Simon Zebo, Ireland, is tackled by Marco Fuser and Mattia Bellini, Italy
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
George Hook

George Hook

Ireland had a facile victory over Italy on Saturday and other than presumably cheering up the coach, players and supporters, it did little to indicate how Joe Schmidt's team will perform next week against Scotland.

Before the game started the visitors had injury problems and the team was further decimated by half-time, making the result a foregone conclusion. To compound the difficulty, the Italians made schoolboy errors to gift Ireland tries.

Thus it was impossible to grade the individual, unit or team performances. Certainly there were some smashing tries but this was division three opposition and we must wait to see if this is the beginning of a new expansive style or an exhibition match without relevance for the future.

The performance hinged on strategic imperatives that are not part of the Schmidt coaching playbook. Offloads, while not proliferating, certainly were in greater profusion than the coach normally allows. The players in green realised from an early stage that this was a fun afternoon.

However, there were issues of concern in the context of the future. Despite their overwhelming superiority, Ireland were still all too often predictable in attacking positions. The team is simply not clinical close to the opposition line, and a look back at the nine-try demolition tells a tale of successes unlikely against first-class opposition.

Sergio Parisse during Ireland's narrow World Cup win over Italy.

One has always had the impression that Schmidt does not fancy Simon Zebo and Saturday demonstrated why. The full back was always a threat in attack but in his two outings at full-back this season he has been less than secure. Concentration earns high points in the coach's book and Zebo fell asleep for the first Italy try, allowing a simple skip pass to send David Odiete over untouched.

The choice at No 15 next week will rest between Rob Kearney, who cannot attack, and Simon Zebo, who cannot defend. Meanwhile the two best full-backs in Ireland will play out of position in midfield. A win will cover a multitude of questions, while a loss will start alarm bells ringing among observers if not in Head Office.

The absence of a defence coach to this team is glaringly obvious. At various times during the afternoon the back three of Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls and Zebo were missing in action. Earls' blunder for the second Italy try by Leonardo Sarto was as bad if not worse than Zebo's.

The last four tries conceded by Ireland have exposed massive frailties out wide close to the line. Allowing Scotland, the same latitude would be a recipe for disaster. The Scots have the pace on the wings and the vision in the centre to exploit a clear Irish weakness.

Eddie O'Sullivan's mantra that defending is not about tackling but about tackling the right man could be posted on the team room door. No acknowledgement to the former Ireland coach would be necessary.

Ireland’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Italy’s Sergio Parisse during Saturday’s Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

The massacre at the Aviva also told us nothing about whether the errors against England have been rectified. If Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton kick as badly against Scotland as they did against England, then victory will remain elusive. The good news is that the out-half was replaced early on, which will do his health no end of good.

Yesterday at Murrayfield indicated the size of the task at the Aviva next Saturday. First and foremost, the Scottish scrum gave France a severe test and if Schmidt is forced in to calling reserves off the bench then catastrophe might not be far away.

Secondly, Vern Cotter has created a game plan based on movement and it will certainly be a new challenge for Ireland, who this season have faced opponents playing below par as attacking units.

Thirdly and perhaps the biggest problem for the Irish coach is that he faces and opponent in Cotter who as his former boss at Clermont presumably knows the workings of his mind. Last year's contest was against a very different Scotland.

This time around, albeit at home, Ireland face perhaps a more confident, more inventive and dare we say it, better coached team. Given the talent at his disposal Cotter looks to have moulded the best team of any of his predecessors over a decade or more.

Much has been made of the Irish injury list and it has been used as the first line of defence against any criticism of style or success. Yet other sides in this competition have faced challenges of defections, and new thinking has changed the performance of teams with players previously seen as surplus to requirements stepping up to replace household names.

Next weekend, at the Aviva, Schmidt's less than extravagant target of third place in the championship can be achieved.

However, a loss will consign the team to the bargain basement of Europe.

That in reality, is last place as Italy might now struggle against Georgia, who are the leaders of the next tier of European nations.

In his solitary moments, the Irish coach knows that he could and should be going in to the final weekend unbeaten and in search of a Grand Slam.

Memories are short, but Wales and France were there for the taking and even mighty England were 10-6 down and in a panic.

Around 7.0 on Saturday next, the Irish dressing-room could be a very lonely place.

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