Saturday 24 February 2018

Kidney being left behind

Ireland’s inability to counter-attack shows a coach stuck on simplistic approach of past

THE reason for Ireland’s sub-standard performances in the Six Nations was finally revealed this week at the team press conference. The captain solemnly announced that it was all the media’s fault.



The Fourth Estate was to blame for the culture of negativity that surrounded the team. The critics had the effrontery to look at Brian O’Driscoll and his team and their propensity to give away penalties at the rate of over 11 per game.

The problem is fixable, he declared, and we presume by this he means that we should only look at elements of the game that are unfixable. I am happy to follow the captain’s injunction and look at the back three’s total inability to counter-attack, which looks clearly unfixable. Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe think counterattack is simply running back at opponents, as opposed to a cohesive pattern to penetrate the kick/chase line in front of them.

INABILITY

Unfixable too is this team’s unwillingness or inability to play the so-called new game. Repeated assertions do not make facts, and the real issue is that Ireland play a game not any different from that of the Grand Slam year, while the rest of the world has moved on. Even lowly Italy are devising strategies to break the gain line with runners and decoys. Meanwhile, Declan Kidney’s strategy remains a simplistic policy of one man off the ruck, making a few yards and falling down. The problem is at out-half. To win games Ireland need Ronan O’Gara at pivot, while to play the modern style talked about but not practised by Kidney, Jonathan Sexton is the only option.

Sexton with Ireland and with Leinster are very different animals. Sean O’Brien faces the same problem; he receives the ball in space in the Heineken Cup, while at international level is used as a battering ram. Joe Schmidt, after a shaky start, has created a game of movement and crucially, thanks to the injury to Rob Kearney at full-back, has Isa Nacewa to initiate counter-attacks. Ireland’s record of just one loss in Cardiff since 1983 will ensure that this team, unlike those of the previous three decades, will not travel in fear. This time the signs are worrying. The Welsh backline bristles with attacking potential. Of the Irish three-quarters only Bowe would be a racing certainty to make the Wales back division. That may seem harsh on O’Driscoll, but the Wales midfield of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts have far more balance than Gordon D’Arcy and his captain.

Meanwhile, James Hook has had a huge influence in all the games so far despite being selected in three different positions. The young man has his critics and the suggestion is that he cannot run a game. In that regard he will cede the palm to O’Gara, but little else, and he guarantees that Wales will attack at every opportunity. The back-row will be crucial and for Wales to win the match they will have to establish superiority here. Sam Warburton is an outstanding openside and No 8 Ryan Jones is rejuvenated now that the coach has been forced to pick him because of the injury to Andy Powell. My guess is that the Welsh style will create more opportunities for their back-row, while David Wallace and Co will be reduced to hewers of wood and drawers of water.

To concentrate on the positives, which warm the captain’s heart: the set-pieces give Ireland at the very worst parity and a real opportunity to use some innovation to upset their opponents. The putative next Irish captain and ace twitterer, Jamie Heaslip, might not be best pleased, but putting O’Brien in the middle of the back-row on Irish attacking scrums could make use of the flanker’s explosive power. Either way, Ireland have been used to struggling at the scrum, where attack was the last thing on their mind – now some imagination would be welcome. The captain has assured us that the penalty horror is fixable. Cardiff will be the test of that supposition.

The two biggest serial offenders come head to head today. If the average number of concessions applied to both sides again, then we could expect a contest of 24 penalties. Jonathan Kaplan is the most politically aware of the world’s referees and he will know that a penalty-fest will damage his chances of the big games at the World Cup in New Zealand. He will try to even the score, which will clearly benefit Ireland. Just do not be taken in at the postmatch press conference when Kidney says the problem has gone away.

History and tradition says Ireland will win, but rarely in the professional era has an Irish team gone to Cardiff without a clear game plan and backline functioning at 50pc. The home team is hardly full of confidence led by an eccentric coach but they are good where it matters. The bookmakers have it about right at a one-point match. Sadly I think that one point will be with the men in red.

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