Sunday 19 November 2017

Wheels fall off the slow coaches

Jackson may take some criticism but can't be faulted for defeat

Paddy Jackson scores Ireland's third try Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Paddy Jackson scores Ireland's third try Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Murrayfield stands defiant in darkness; a cacophonous cackle of appalling, ear-splitting light rock music has expelled the last of the patrons.

Two years ago, the Paddies turned this whole place into an impromptu outdoor nightclub to celebrate another Six Nations title.

Today it is the Jocks who are cock-a-hoop and even their players conduct a lap of honour.

Small offspring are ferried on to the field and the Scots display their spoils as if it is the William Webb Ellis itself, rather than the Centenary Quaich (a large silver soup bowl, if you're asking).

A short time later, the Irish players trundle through Edinburgh Airport accompanied by almost apologetic applause from supporters. Some pose for selfies, momentarily swapping one rictus for another - from agonised anguish to giddy grin

Defeat feels worse when it is so largely self-inflicted. Ireland competitively searched for a variety of reasons to lose this game, found them quite readily, but then remarkably recovered to give themselves a chance to win it.


It suited the general theme of incompetence and inattention to detail that Ireland conspired to lose it once more; sent home to think again. There is much to ponder.

Chiefly, Ireland may start by perhaps planning an overnight stay in the Stadio Olimpico next Friday night, rather than risking the anarchic traffic-laden piazzas on match-day.

Oh, and wouldn't it be so handy if those nice Italians had a roof, too?

Today, oval-headed boffins can calculate every bead of sweat upon a player's brow and calculate to the last Cornflake their dietary intake. Coaches have access to more technological expertise than NASA.

And yet Ireland's day was undone before a ball was kicked by an utterly avoidable mishap; we can all get the weather wrong (apologies Irish radio listeners, but I did get the handicap right).

Spring normally arrives in Edinburgh in mid-July; Saturday's kick-off was supposed to coincide with 50km gusts and squally rain, but instead the sun smiled sardonically upon us all.

Ireland, who seem so pathologically addicted to unchanging routine that even the most minor upset can veer them violently off course, were also 15 minutes late arriving to the ground.

Later, this was amended to 10. Then 10 to 15. Maybe they were so early they made themselves late. Sometimes, people have too much time on their hands. No wonder they dawdled for half the game.

In a city where buses run quicker than the trams, confusion is perhaps understandable. But not excusable.

Still, the head coach mentioned it several times. And the breeze. And the breakdown. And the defence. And the attack. And the lineout.

Curiously, he never mentioned himself.

Later Eddie Jones' side had a similarly slow start against France, emerged to win and the coach immediately tipped the blame upon his own shoulders.

Surveying the wreckage of Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes, it appears as if Joe Schmidt eyed deficiencies everywhere else. Deep down, he will know all those factors are ultimately his responsibility.

"It wasn't ideal, but we're not a team that uses excuses like that," says Rob Kearney, who, like most of his colleagues, deviated between the staggering and the stuttering.

"I think it's probably a little bit weak-minded to use excuses like that. It didn't help, but it wasn't the reason we started slowly."

Andy Farrell, rightly, will take a hit. Despite the almost religious devotion to his labours, the fruits of them, a continuing flood of conceded tries, doesn't stack up. Simon Easterby's set-piece stumbles returned to haunt him.

But, ultimately, just as Schmidt himself garnered so much credit for the Chicago coup, this worrying re-visiting of the nadir of World Cup and 2016 Six Nations disappointment should expose him to criticism now - particularly the reluctance to alter a game-plan that was utterly unfit for purpose.

Even when the side's approach seemed that it might be enough to get them over the line, Ireland were so shagged from launching their ball-carriers into blue walls, that multiple line-breaks were forfeited.

Scotland ruthlessly exposed an Irish side who, even as the sod dried and the sun shone, chose (or were instructed) to mostly abandon the energy and enigma that had thrived in Chicago.

No off-loads, one-out bashing and (poor) box-kicking, added to a creaking line-out - their normal route to the whitewash - compounded the general lethargy.

Their comfort zone - whether reaching the ground not a second beyond schedule or failing to score from a catch and drive lineout - inflicted catatonia upon Ireland for the first half-hour.

At least the PA didn't inflict catatonia upon us after the final whistle. Ireland will just hear catcalls ringing in their ears.

Paddy Jackson may hear the criticism more than most. That would be harshly unfair.

On Saturday, we walked the Royal Mile and made it our business to visit the grave of local poet Robert Fergusson in the Canongate Kirkyard.

His was a sad life. A heavy drinker, he suffered from depression and ended his life in a lunatic asylum. He was 24, but, had Rabbie Burns not lived, Scots would celebrate Fergusson's night, not Burns Nicht.

"Alas, how oft, with merry heart, have we beheld thee play the Sexton's part; Each comic heart must now be grieved to see The Sexton's dreary part performed on thee."

Fergusson wrote of death; Jackson metaphorically succumbed here four years ago but could not be said of have suffered a similar fate on Saturday. Like all his comrades, he recovered after the team woke up.

We're not sure whether our poet might have contemplated between drams of Scotch whether or not one should risk Ireland's Sexton for another tricky trip to Rome.

For what it's worth - perhaps less than our and the IRFU's weather forecasting and traffic navigating abilities - Jackson should start in Rome, with Sexton not risked.

Jackson was not faultless, but the defeat was not his fault; the back-row behemoths asked to sweep the way forward to allow him the space and time to play, did not do so. Nor did they possess a member who could consistently pilfer.

Also, Jackson would not have expected to rely on his dominant scrum-half partner, but he also would not have expected him to perform so poorly.

Jackson, like any out-half, played well when his team did; when they stank, he couldn't but smell off too.

Schmidt has had to plan in Sexton's absence - "82 minutes in eight matches" - and should continue doing so.

The Kiwi may have been on a slow coach on Saturday, but he is not one himself.

Irish Independent

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