Tuesday 24 April 2018

Kidney's forward thinking keeps World Cup dream alive

George Hook

George Hook

Bravery in the trenches sets up Bowe to strike knockout blow, writes George Hook Ireland played as well as they were allowed in this amazing victory against a resurgent England.

Ireland, at international and provincial level, can be beaten by teams that overpower the scrum and retain possession. However, the physical bravery in the trench warfare up front was immense and never more so than in the last pulsating 10 minutes when the team faced defeat.

As the hero Brian O'Driscoll went off injured, we felt that our chances had gone with him, but it was the donkeys up front that never gave up. Ronan O'Gara threw himself around like a dervish, no doubt inspired by the heroics of the sweaty men up front. In this fixture 48 years ago, Ireland went to Twickenham with nine new caps and a 17-year-old at scrum-half. The predictable heavy defeat was exacerbated by two Irish players with broken bones forced to carry on without substitution.

This time around, it was the most experienced side in Irish history with six players having almost 400 caps between them, and, barring unforeseen accidents, no player would be required to play through the pain barrier.

In contrast, England's six most-capped players had just half the experience of their opponents.

Despite a 15-month run unbeaten, apart from the glitch in Paris, Declan Kidney faced the possibility of an inquest on his selection methodology were his team to lose a second match in a row. His decision not to go with Leo Cullen was incomprehensible to everybody outside the camp.

All the experts saw the contest between the out-halves as the defining clash. The first couple of minutes provided an interesting comparison in styles. Jonny Wilkinson touched the ball seven times and passed six times. Meanwhile, Jonathan Sexton, having been a spectator, got one pass and, demonstrating awareness of space and angle, discomfited the English defence to put Tommy Bowe over with a deft kick.

However, it was the kicking from the hand that was the difference. Wilkinson kicked poorly from the hand and never tested the Irish back three, especially the diminutive Keith Earls. In contrast, Sexton targeted Ugo Monye unmercifully and with some success. The previous generation of Irish administrators that wondered what Gaelic footballers could bring to the oval-ball game, had their answer with the superb aerial catching that is now part of the Irish game.

The euphoria of John Hayes' 100th cap was short-lived as he was minced by Tim Payne, a bog-standard prop who spent most of the season on the receiving end in the Premiership. The referee was unequivocal in his view that Hayes faced a yellow card for attempting to survive illegally. He was not alone in his discomfort. Cian Healy never imposed himself on another youngster, Dan Cole.

The scrum is unimportant most of the time until it happens five metres from the line. England were able to take control whenever they wished and it led to their equalising try at 13 points each. It was sad to see one of the finest servants of the Irish game unable to compete at the international level he has graced for so long. Kidney's selection of Tony Buckley, another non-scrummager on the bench, reduced his options.

Ireland were five points up after 20 minutes but were flattered. England were dominant, aggressive and full of confidence. Maybe highly paid sportsmen had finally taken their destiny in to their own hands. Yet for all their huff and puff, the home team did not have a cutting edge and the Irish defence coped comfortably with a backline marshalled by Wilkinson from too deep a position.

The next 20 minutes went Ireland's way, largely through the failure of the English line-out. The departure of Simon Shaw damaged the England set-piece as Louis Deacon was a poor substitute. It was a classic Kidney performance, his team soaking up the pressure and waiting for the opponent to drop his guard in order to land the knockout blow.

The problem for Ireland was that the opponent, although inferior, was too close for comfort. However, even the best teams struggle against a two-to-one territory advantage and Ireland were on the back foot.

A dreadful decision by assistant referee Christoph Berdos led to a reversed penalty against England. It led to a try by Earls and saved the culprit, Stephen Ferris, from a yellow card. At 13-6 Ireland were in the driving seat, only to be undone by a weak scrum.

It was significant that when Kidney unloaded his bench, Eoin Reddan did not form part of his plans. His decision to use Ronan O'Gara was correct, as Ireland needed a player to play the territory game. His raking kick delivered the field position that enabled Bowe to profit from a training-ground move and put his team four points clear with seven minutes to go.

This was a magnificent demonstration of character and commitment. The dream lives on. No Grand Slam, but there has been no implosion of confidence. This team is still on course for our best-ever Rugby World Cup. They have now risen twice from the ashes of Paris. First under Eddie in the World Cup and then two weeks ago. Kidney has delivered an extraordinary group.

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