Tuesday 24 April 2018

Tony Ward: Winning the first priority but a bit of flair would be nice

Luke Fitzgerald's return to the Irish starting XV could give Joe Schmidt some additional attacking options
Luke Fitzgerald's return to the Irish starting XV could give Joe Schmidt some additional attacking options
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

SOMEONE will have to sit me down sometime and explain precisely how it is you learn more about yourself in defeat than in victory.

It is a lovely old adage, no doubting that, but in terms of substance, it carries little real weight.

What losing actually does is plant seeds of doubt and, however small, that is my only real concern in the aftermath of Cardiff. It was a bad day at the office. We didn't play well against Wales, yet could have won and should at least have drawn.

The Welsh played out of their skins defensively, bearing in mind that, for all our problems out of touch and in the air, we dominated possession and territory almost two to one. They are incredible statistics.

The referee didn't help our cause, but blaming him is not the answer. I do not like Wayne Barnes as a match official, but that's for his idiosyncrasies and onfield demeanour, and not for anything remotely close to bias.

Three line-breaks - two by our most seasoned lock, Paul O'Connell - with 64pc possession in 80 minutes of rugby is just not good enough.

The leaking line-out can be sealed and will be, so too the battle in the sky, but the inability to create opportunities, either through offloading in contact or preferably just before, is a worrying trend as our abysmal try-scoring return reflects.

Limited

By our own admission, we are clearly not an offloading team. We are playing a brand of limited rugby to suit our needs at this particular point in time.

Once we win, everything in the garden is rosy - but when it goes belly-up, as it did in Cardiff, it is then the need for critical self-analysis is greatest.

If that is what is actually meant by learning more in defeat, then count me in.

In terms of the bigger picture, specifically the World Cup, we need to develop a far more creative and more clinical cutting edge, but given what is on offer today - the opportunity of back-to-back Six Nations successes (even though it is somewhat out of our hands) - the extent of that ambition must be curtailed for now.

The question for Joe Schmidt, Les Kiss, Simon Easterby and the rest is by just how much.

So what can be addressed if we are to step up from last week's sobering lesson?

For starters, we can hit the ground running and avoid a repeat of last weekend when we let the opposition dictate the tempo from the off.

'Hitting the ground running' means being prepared for Scotland's early Braveheart blitz and dampening it. Conceding 12 points in the Millennium in as many minutes left us with a mountain to climb and we are not a catch-up team.

First and foremost, though, it is vital to get the victory today. Back-to-back defeats at the end of a campaign that has promised so much would be a huge blow.

The winning formula, so successful in the early matches, must be repeated, but equally the need for a little more ambition, call it risk-taking, is now clear. We really do need to translate position and possession into points - and preferably by way of tries.

The changes made to the starting line-up are minimal and justifiable, although I feel for Simon Zebo who has done much right and so little wrong.

That said, he is operating in the most competitive position in this Irish set-up by some distance.

Luke Fitzgerald offers too much potential to leave in reserve. He is not yet ready to operate in midfield at Test level but, like Zebo, is a naturally left-sided player, but with that little bit more in terms of balance between defence and attack.

Playing Cian Healy from the start is no reflection on Jack McGrath, but is a no-brainer in the circumstances. Oh that one of them was a tighthead, although Marty Moore's time is fast approaching.

Wholesale changes with a seven-day turnaround were never on the agenda, although a strong case could certainly have been made for Iain Henderson's inclusion.

The midfield pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne has done well given what it has replaced, but what's the best combination?

The jury is still out on that one. Whether Henshaw would be more effective at 13 with Ian Madigan wearing 12 we will not now know until the pre-World Cup friendlies at the earliest.

Rob Kearney, too, could do with a big game as Payne, having proved he has the appropriate big-match temperament, offers a very real alternative at full-back.

What transpired in Cardiff wasn't the end of the world but was a setback, given that it was reminiscent of Wellington 2011.

I fully accept the premise of earning the right to go wide, but sometimes a little variety beyond the out-half position creates uncertainty in the defence.

The wish today obviously is to win our fourth match in five and see where that takes us in the Championship but equally we would like to do so on the back of attacking variation that suggests a squad on a World Cup mission with winning aspirations.

Peter O'Mahony was surprisingly muted against the Welsh, certainly by his own belligerent standards. Along with the official captain, he is our original Braveheart.

This game is made for him. The Scots have little to lose, given that the Italians have already taken the battle of the basement but a win would sure boost flagging morale.

But my money is on Ireland to bounce back - with the proviso of a new and hitherto missing ingredient thrown into the mix. I take Ireland by eight.

Couch potatoes' gain is fair play's loss as TV calls tune

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