The errors of their ways
The French defeat showed Ireland need a change of approach in some pivotal areas, says Brendan Fanning
It's lunchtime on Thursday in a Cork hotel and Declan Kidney has stepped out from the main press conference to take some supplementary questions.
The review of a game that has variously been described as 'one that got away' was completed with the players the previous night. The group are in that half-way house between looking back in anger and forward with impatience.
Remarkably, in the four days since the defeat by France, the coach has not had to shed any light on something that has had everybody in the dark: why Leo Cullen was sprung from the bench with five seconds left on the clock. In the early days of professionalism when it was literally pay for play -- and you were the poorer if you didn't get on the field -- Cullen's cameo would have been in the same bracket as Paul Flavin's debut in 1997 when the prop ran on for a conversion of France's fifth try. It was the last kick of the game. Then he ran off, triumphantly.
The Cullen scenario is altogether different. Pride was the only issue. He looked a bit daft running on, and the management felt equally awkward about having sent him on a fool's errand.
"That timing wasn't meant to happen at all," Kidney admits. "It could have happened earlier. We were keeping a close eye on how fellas were going. You don't bring a fella on for five seconds. You can't do that. We were looking to make the call earlier but the passage of play that built up to it went on for . . . Even that, I'm trying to justify for two minutes which isn't enough either but like Paul was going well; Leo has a definite influence when it comes down to it; Donncha's workrate in the 79th minute was what it was in the zero minute. It's just that it looked shocking, didn't it?"
We've never heard Kidney make an admission like that before. In his defence, the sequence of play ran on for more than four minutes while Cullen was waiting in the wings trying to get on. Even so, there was nothing to stop them recalling him when it became obvious that the lineout they were looking for, that gap in which to insinuate the Leinster captain, wasn't going to happen. This is important not because a potential jail-break was botched with seconds on the clock, but because it was the last straw in a back-breaking exercise that started much earlier in the journey.
Ireland will go to the World Cup in September and come home having lost the quarter-final to South Africa unless three things can be fixed and quickly: passing technique in general but especially at scrumhalf; defensive technique, where currently we are in trouble on the penalty count; and game plan -- when and from where to run the ball.
On the way out of Lansdowne Road last Sunday, we were unfortunate enough to be within earshot of a couple of punters whose vilification of Tomás O'Leary was shocking. Interestingly, they focused on the idea that it was his naked greed that had cost the game. O'Leary is a warrior, a selfless contributor and with a good enough running game to have been selected originally for the last Lions Tour.
His passing technique however is at times excruciating. This is not about aesthetics, rather it is the effect elsewhere of having a scrumhalf whose passing puts others in trouble. There was a moment on Sunday when David Wallace was the first receiver standing five or six metres wide of the ruck on the east stand side of the field. The minimum he needed was the ball fed in front of him. He got it behind his ear. By the time he had made the adjustment the space was gone, and he was battered.
Much earlier in the game, Ireland got good go-forward ball off a scrum on the half-way line and Sean O'Brien came steaming around the corner as the first receiver. Sure enough, he received it and, under pressure, tried to deflect it immediately to Paul O'Connell. The crowd groaned when O'Connell spilled it and they would have divided the blame between flanker and second row. Had they rewound a couple of seconds they would have seen that O'Leary approached the ruck with his footwork wrong. So instead of planting his left foot and sweeping the ball away, he stooped and picked and stepped and passed. Maradona would have done well to deflect the resulting pass to O'Connell without being emptied.
There are concerns too about the passing technique of Jonny Sexton. It's as if he has one speed of delivery at the minute: hard and fast. Yes, Fergus McFadden should have held the pass he got from the outhalf in the first period, and maybe he would have had it been more sympathetic in the first place.
Constantly we are told that success at this level is about inches, about getting the little things right. So is passing. Successful teams pass the ball well and currently Ireland cannot do that. You'd wonder what happens when these mistakes occur at training. When you ask this of Donncha O'Callaghan, his answer is instructive.
"Even last night in the meeting, our meetings are really frank -- it's balls out stuff," he says. "If you made a mistake, you're more than likely going to hear it off the coaches but Seanie picked someone up on something; Jamie was picked up on something from the floor, from the players. That's the best way -- when you can get it from the players. Self-policing, when it's a team standard that's expected and when fellas don't perform their roles, they hear it in the dressing room off the coaches and from their team-mates."
When Keith Wood came back to Munster from Harlequins in 1999, he upset some of the lads by his willingness to bawl them out for making mistakes on the training field. So what happens when there are industrial amounts of spillage on the Ireland training paddock? "I'll be honest with you, no one's going out to drop balls," O'Callaghan says. "It would be different maybe at club level, that you could (say): 'Keep the balls up'. But you're talking to established internationals here. That would be a cheeky comment at best, to tell one of your fellow pros: 'Get your hands up, that's not acceptable'. And to be honest with you, sometimes deafening silence is worse than anything. You'd prefer to hear a sarcastic line."
In that case there must be a whole lot of pictures and no sound at Ireland squad sessions if they train anything like they play.
Then there is the defensive technique. O'Callaghan is effusive about the coaching input and singles out Les Kiss for the quality of his detail. It was Kiss who gave Ireland a distinct advantage in 2009 with a 'choke' tackling technique that allowed Ireland's defensive line time to reset. That has since been overtaken by the law protocol that demands tacklers to take their hands off as soon as the victim is put to ground.
When you hear Kidney questioning decisions on the basis that they were mauls and not tackles -- in which case there was no obligation to take hands off -- you can feel his pain. At least two of the kickable penalties last Sunday should not have been given. The protocol here is that in the days after the game the coach can email Paddy O'Brien in the IRB and highlight specific incidents where the referee got it wrong. You don't complain for the sake of it, rather in the areas where you reckon you are doing something right and it's perceived as something wrong.
In their effort to compensate for the effective banning of the choke tackle, Ireland have gone down a road that is hard to negotiate. Kidney's lobbying on this issue either needs to be more effective or Kiss needs to come up with another technique that referees are less likely to penalise. We are now half-way through the Championship and shouldn't be trying to sort out which way to go on this.
And neither should we have to listen to the coach portray his players as pioneers of the running game, which is why this particular omelette has caused the destruction of so many eggs. There is a bit of Kidney spin going on here, that the reason Ireland are making so many mistakes is because they are playing with sweeping ambition, that in going from walking to running it is inevitable you stumble a few times.
He goes back to his golfing analogy, that a relaxed swing is more effective than gripping the club like you're hanging off the edge of a cliff. Fair enough. Might it be more prudent though sometimes to read the signs about staying away from the edge of the cliff in the first place?
When Damien Traille botched his restart after Tomás O'Leary's try, the best option was to punish him. Send them backwards with a punt to the corner and make him feel that the reason they were back there was because of his mistake. Even the running option, which involved Brian O'Driscoll passing blind to O'Leary, was in a higher risk category than was necessary. Sometimes running from your own line is the thing to do. And other times kicking from 50 metres further upfield is equally pragmatic.
And speaking of that word, Kidney used it himself when trying to explain the rationale behind getting Cullen on the field late in the day. The coach reckoned it might all come down to an Irish lineout in the France 22 and that having watched that phase closely all afternoon, Cullen, Leinster's lineout strategist, would be a handy man to have around.
"We had lost one maybe five or six minutes earlier when we'd gone for a (ambitious) call. Leo's a great man for calling the lineout -- winning it, pragmatically where he wins it, which I felt was the priority at the time rather than going for maybe the more difficult throw."
For that earlier "more difficult throw" O'Callaghan had fully expected the ball to be called to the back. All he was thinking about was winning the game. The ball was lost. And a few days later while being hugely enthusiastic about the ambition of the team and how far they can go, he starts to question the route.
"And I honestly think it might be just a bit of team smarts, and realising sometimes -- I'm flying solo here, now -- but like I said to you, risk analysis, when is it worth not playing?" he says. "Like, when is it worth just giving them the ball, or hoofing it down the pitch and saying: 'Right, ye have it for 10 minutes and we'll D (defend) up'. Because there's massive faith in our defensive system, and you don't have to play for the sake of it. It would have been something Deccie would always have maintained -- we play to win, y'know? It doesn't matter if it's 3-0 or 6-0, it's get the result."
Ireland won't get any results that matter unless they can fix their fundamentals. We feel sure Kidney, reluctant to spring from the bench in any event, won't allow himself to be caught with a late, late show like last Sunday which featured a reluctant guest. We'd feel better if he moved on the other stuff as well.
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