Monday 11 December 2017

Millennium doom for Irish

Dejected Ireland players Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy after yesterday's defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile
Dejected Ireland players Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy after yesterday's defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile


SO it's back to the drawing board then. A 19-13 defeat to Wales and the end of an unbeaten run in Cardiff that stretched back to 1983. It was the manner of it that hurt most.

It stung that Mike Phillips' critical 51st-minute try stemmed from a quickly-taken lineout that, by common consent, should not have been allowed. And it hurt more that Ireland's play was littered with the concession of needless penalties we were told would be eradicated.

Two years ago Ireland -- and the boot of Ronan O'Gara -- had delivered a much-coveted Grand Slam in this stadium but things have moved on and the credit stacked up by Declan Kidney is in serious danger of running dry. Heavily criticised after their narrow victory over Scotland in Murrayfield two weeks ago, heaven knows what bile will issue forth from the Twittersphere in the wake of this losing performance.

Much will be made of Phillips' controversial try and why Shane Williams was allowed to take a quick throw-in even though the kick by Jonathan Sexton had carried into the crowd. When Phillips scored, a clutch of Irish players surrounded the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, who consulted his touch judge before allowing the score, but declined to refer to the TMO, a decision that, in Brian O'Driscoll's words, "beggared belief".

Yet if they manage to shake off their persecution complex, Ireland will conclude that they simply didn't play well enough against a side that coped better with the conditions and the pressure. The early gift of Brian O'Driscoll's record-equalling 24th championship try should have relaxed Ireland, but soon they were their old panicky and error-strewn selves again, conceding the penalties for James Hook to kick and keep Wales within touching distance.

For Kidney there were some positives. Although he conceded a couple of penalties, Sean O'Brien was immense. Keith Earls had one of his best games yet for Ireland while Tommy Bowe showed once again that he is surely too good to be curtailed on the wing. Even if Ireland didn't dominate possession, they still created the game's best moves. The talent is clearly there to play attacking rugby. They just don't know how to unleash it in sufficient quantity.

The coach himself continues to perplex. With Ireland four points in front, the Millennium roof open and the rain spilling down, the game looked tailor-made for O'Gara, yet for some reason only he knows, Kidney decided that 49 minutes was enough for the Munster outhalf and Sexton made his entrance. With his first touch, Sexton conceded the throw-in from which Phillips scored. His second act was to miss a simple penalty in front of the Welsh posts.

Would Ireland have lost had O'Gara stayed on the field? That is the question that will be debated in newsprint and on the internet over the coming days. Yet it would be harsh to lay the blame for Ireland's defeat at Sexton's door. The Leinster outhalf must have been as surprised as anybody to have gotten the call at the time he did and the two major errors he committed came while he was still attuning himself to the frantic pace of the game.

For Sexton the final indignity was in not getting the chance to redeem himself by kicking the winning score at the death. For this the blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Paddy Wallace. With Ireland pressing for a late try, Sexton and O'Driscoll had brilliantly ferried the ball wide to Wallace who had Keith Earls, arms open in anticipation of a pass, free to his left. Inexplicably, Wallace ignored the winger and cut inside into Welsh cover. Two phases later the ball was spilled forward by Cian Healy and the game was over.

So Ireland's prospects of a Triple Crown had been shattered as well as their slim hopes of winning the championship. The latter ambition had been enhanced a couple of hours previously with Italy's shock 22-21 victory against France at the Stadio Flaminio. It was a wonderful victory for Italy and a tribute to the fighting qualities that saw them recover from an 18-6 deficit to claim the biggest scalp in their history.

They only took the lead for the first time with five minutes remaining and given that they blew a similar position against Ireland last month, it seemed an eternity to hold out. They skirted disaster when a French scrum on the Italian 22 had to be reset twice, but survived to claim a famous win and prove that a team that plays to its strengths and knows what it is doing can achieve anything.

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