Wednesday 22 November 2017

'The Irish set-piece is a disaster area when the front-rank players are missing'

George Hook

George Hook

One win in France since 1972 was hardly a reason for optimism in Bordeaux and defeat was duly Ireland's lot. Many times in the last 40 years Ireland have come back from seemingly impossible positions to make the fixture a contest. Even the Brian O'Driscoll hat-trick-inspired win came after Ireland had spent a long period looking like losing by a landslide.

Saturday evening was no exception to the rule and the question must be posed, did Ireland get better or did France stop playing?

All the evidence points to the latter possibility and consequently we should be careful about drawing conclusions.

First and foremost, it is incontrovertible that Marc Lievremont made enormous mistakes.

When Maxime Mermoz went off, the French coach brought David Skrela to fly-half and moved Francois Trinh-Duc to the centre. It was a mistake of catastrophic proportions and France stopped playing. A schoolboy coach would have put Damien Traille in the midfield and used the substitute full-back, Maxime Medard.

In contrast, much has been made of Declan Kidney's substitutions, yet the coach is clearly playing by numbers. Bang on 60 minutes, Jerry Flannery and Conor Murray arrived and Paul O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip arrived to push Denis Leamy and Leo Cullen further down the pecking order for New Zealand.

Far more worrying was the coach's inability to see that Sean O'Brien simply cannot play at open-side. Earlier in the afternoon another open-side demonstrated the value of a true No 7 as Sam Warburton was at the root of Wales' victory over England.

The rugby world values open-side flankers and Ireland still have yet to give David Wallace an outing! Either Kidney is a genius, Wallace is hurt or, God forbid, he does not figure in the coach's plans.

Ireland's first-choice back-row must play against France at the Aviva if the team is to have any chance of a victory. Going to the World Cup with a win over Connacht would hardly be the ideal preparation. An unequivocal apology from this column should be winging its way to Andrew Trimble, who has cast off all known form to deliver on the promise he showed as a youngster.

In Bordeaux he was Ireland's man of the match. One save on the ground five metres from his own line on the wrong wing was vital when many of his colleagues went missing.

As O'Connell is to Cullen, so is Trimble to Luke Fitzgerald. Of the available wings, including a hopefully fit Tommy Bowe, Fitzgerald now ranks a comfortable fifth. His performance was not about what he did not do but rather what he did.

Like all players in a slump he is now frustrated and it shows in off-the-ball incidents that border on cheap shots. He gave away one penalty with an early tackle and got away with an outrageous body check later.

One suspects that the news on Stephen Ferris is not good and that is why Kidney looked at Donnacha Ryan as back-up. The problem is that Ryan ticks the boxes of versatility, strength and commitment.

However, his naivety at the side was cruelly exposed by Raphael Lakafia, who was 10 yards downfield before the Irishman lifted his head. It should have cost seven points and would be disastrous in a World Cup encounter.

The arrival at scrum-half of young Murray was much anticipated and he won positive marks, not least as a passer, where his economy of movement reminded me of legendary All Black Dave Loveridge.

Rumour has it that Brian O'Driscoll is fit to play and it cannot come a moment too soon. If Gordon D'Arcy does not make the cut, then the great man should be partnered by Fergus McFadden, and not the callow Paddy Wallace, who again demonstrated that he has little to offer.

On the bright side, Ronan O'Gara was imperious and has thrown down a real challenge to Jonny Sexton. Sexton's last two performances, against Munster at Thomond Park and Scotland at Murrayfield, were far from perfect and he needs a big display.

The picture is becoming clear. The Irish set-piece is a disaster area when the front-rank players are missing; Ireland will lose against Italy if Tony Buckley is at tight-head; the Irish challenge will be non-existent without Brian O'Driscoll and the back-row must be David Wallace, Heaslip and O'Brien.

Not bad information after just two games.

Irish Independent

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