O'Gara can steer us through storm
IN OCTOBER 1991, the fishing boat Andrea Gail set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, headed for the North Atlantic, pursuing swordfish.
Maybe 900km into their journey, warm air from a low-pressure area began moving in from the east, while a flow of cool, dry air generated by high pressure sat to the north. Meanwhile, tropical, moist air from Hurricane Grace was moving swiftly up the coast from the Gulf.
This created a unique meteorological event that would unleash a storm of biblical proportions on the unwary crew. The Andrea Gail never stood a chance. It was on a direct collision course with the now famous Halloween Nor'easter storm and, it is believed, the boat was capsized by a rogue wave.
The circumstances leading to the loss of the Andrea Gail are described brilliantly by Sebastian Junger in a book entitled ‘The Perfect Storm’, subsequently turned into a popular Hollywood movie of the same name. As somebody who grew up salmon fishing, the story of the lost boat resonated deeply with me. In Youghal, there was always that quiet, unspoken fear of the sea that stalks all fishing communities. My great great grandfather, Captain Lynch, was Master of The Youghal Citizen lost off the Saltee Islands on Christmas Day of 1895.
My great grandfather, Mike Delaney, was ‘boy' on that ship and thrown to safety on the rocks before it sank.
I grew up listening to stories of the sea's cruelty when storm winds blow and, this week, can't help seeing something of the Andrea Gail in the Irish team facing into a defining Six Nations game in Wales. I'm not suggesting that's necessarily the fate awaiting them in the Millennium Stadium today. But I do believe they are facing into a pretty tumultuous storm.
Now two things instantly struck me about Donncha O'Callaghan's revelation that Declan Kidney chose to “let fly” at the players in Carton House on the Tuesday before last. Firstly, letting fly is not exactly Declan's natural condition. Secondly, given he'd had two whole days to gather his thoughts after Murrayfield, it wasn't a spontaneous move.
In other words, Declan will have thought very carefully before stepping into that team-room and, as Donncha put it, being “that blunt and direct” about the performance against Scotland. In my time as Irish coach, it wasn't unknown for me to “let fly”. Sometimes I did it ill-advisedly and there were a couple of occasions when I actually felt the need to apologise to the team afterwards. Always, my outburst was a reflex reaction though, a little eruption immediately after the game ending. The difference here is that Declan will have thought long and hard about what he did.
On the face of it, two wins from three shouldn't signify anything unusual or worrying about the campaign to date. But, beneath that plain statistic resides a frothing ocean of uncertainty. The players accentuate the positives and rightly so. Ostensibly, a try count of seven to two in Ireland's favour speaks of a team well able to find its way around opposing defences. This is no mean feat, given the incredible tactical investment now commonplace in defences. That said, I never had any doubt that Ireland would score tries against France. The French defence is of the wet tissue paper variety and remember, the Scots also crossed for three tries on their visit to Paris. Yes, the same Scottish team that couldn't score even one against 13 Welsh players. So crossing the French line doesn't exactly equate to an unroped ascent of the Eiger.
Furthermore, the three tries Ireland scored against Scotland were breathtakingly simpleexecutions that spoke more of missed tackles than any wonderful creative expression. Actually, Scotland's shocking ineptitude in basic, one-on-one tackle situations that day in Murrayfield would have been unacceptable at schoolboy level.
It is highly unlikely Ireland will be accommodated so generously today or, indeed, next week against England. One thing that strikes me about the Welsh defence is that, even when they make mistakes, they scramble very well to limit the damage. Ireland's disciplinary woes in this Six Nations have become something of a broken record, jammed CD or corrupted download (whichever music era you care to dwell in). People have talked about silly penalties, the problems with the law, tackles that are mauls, not rucks, and plain bad refereeing. But nobody seems terribly sure about the genesis of our difficulties.
All everyone agrees is that there is a problem. Frankly, there can be no more excuses. If this Irish team is to be taken seriously at the highest level, this indiscipline needs to end. Time is running out here. Some greater clarity needs to apply, too, to the game plan. The socalled “running game” has been hugely impressive at times. At others, it has looked a liability, a kind of forced concoction when kicking for field position ought to have been the option.
That said, Ronan O'Gara's retention for today's game has been depicted by some as a virtual abandonment of the expansive style. For the life of me, I can't see why. It seems to be forgotten that, in the Six Nations of 2007, we scored 17 tries on top of the 14 scored in three games during the '06 Autumn Internationals. That's an average of just under four tries per game. And who was playing at No 10? That's right, ROG. The key is that there was balance. Ronan mixed things. He'd spin the ball wide when it was on, yet never abandon his world-class kicking game.
At the moment, confidence seems low in this Irish team. And running with the ball in that state of mind is like asking someone to walk a tightrope for the first time without a safety net. Then there's the set-piece. Our line-out returns are nothing like they were a few years ago and the scrum is just about holding its own. Both are there to be targeted by a smart opponent.
Is that opponent Wales? Much like ourselves, they don't have a great deal to crow about thus far. They've beaten Italy and Scotland, clearly the two weakest teams in the tournament. And, until that facile victory over the wretched Scots, they had managed just two wins from their previous 14 Tests. But the Welsh have a more solid set-piece than Ireland's and will undoubtedly see this as a must-win game now.
In my experience, Wales are a confidence team. Given the right frame of mind, they are capable of scintillating running rugby. Also, the Millennium Stadium is crucial to them. At home, they grow a few inches bigger and move a few seconds faster.
Our last four visits to Cardiff have produced very tight games and I doubt today will be any different. In '03 and '09, we needed O'Gara dropgoals to see us through. In '07, we won by 10 points but it was a dogfight all the way. And in '05, much to our disgust, we left a Triple Crown behind us, Wales winning the Grand Slam. In summation, Ireland will start in Cardiff today with a team that is low on confidence, a set-piece sure to be vigorously tested and a discipline problem that has become chronic. And they're coming up against opponents who, in the Millennium, believe that they can beat anybody.
Reasons for optimism? The captain of the Andrea Gail was warned of dangerous conditions, yet disregarded them to set a bold course for home. He was a fool. Declan Kidney isn't.