Saturday 18 January 2020

The national questions

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

FOR those who like to see things in black and white, this was a difficult weekend.

There was the Afrikaans-speaking Richardt Strauss belting out 'Amhran na bhFhiann' at Lansdowne Road, while just a few men to his left, a series of Ulster players remained stoic, waiting for their turn with 'Ireland's Call'.

A few minutes earlier, the majority of South Africans in the crowd waited for the third part of their four-part anthem -- 'Die Stem', the old anthem from the apartheid era -- to begin before singing, while they fretted over their Zimbabwean-born prop Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, who had been taken to hospital before the game.

Strauss then went out and spilled blood for the cause, giving everything he had to beat the country of his birth, while the maligned Michael Bent came off the bench and showed that he wasn't some backpacking chancer and is actually a prop of genuine ability.

Then, yesterday, a Dutchman in orange boots scored two tries for a Scotland side featuring a Zimbabwean and a South African who played proudly in defeat to New Zealand, while England hammered Fiji on Saturday with a team featuring a South African partnering a Samoan in midfield, a New Zealander at No 8 and a Tongan behemoth prop coming off the bench for his debut.

It is head-spinning stuff and just shows how difficult the debate over qualification to play international rugby has become. The lines have blurred and nobody now knows where to draw the new ones.

Size Matters

Ireland and Leinster have thrived with two relatively small centres for more than 10 years, but as Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll near retirement, it could be time to look to the bigger, younger options coming through.

Between them, D'Arcy and Keith Earls gave up a stone and a half on their opposite numbers, who were both significantly taller.

The lack of an imposing carrier in the centre in the Rob Henderson or Kevin Maggs mould meant that South Africa could drift outwards, safe in the knowledge that there was significant cover inside, while both of the home centres had to punch above their weight when defending against Jean de Villiers and Jaco Taute.

Dave McSharry, Luke Marshall and Darren Cave are some of the bigger ball-carrying options who could provide more thrust in the midfield, while Earls' broken-field running talents could be put to far better use out wide.

Now it's time to cheer on the Boks

Much has been made of the rankings issue, but should the Springboks overcome Scotland at Murrayfield next weekend, the matter becomes moot.

While slipping to eighth is not ideal, it has little practical impact. If Andy Robinson's side, who showed glimmers of positivity in defeat to New Zealand yesterday, can respond by beating South Africa for the second time in succession, then Ireland will be in trouble.

If the Scots leapfrog Ireland it would have a dramatic impact on next month's draw for the 2015 World Cup and would increase the pressure on coach Declan Kidney ahead of the meeting with Argentina.

Plenty of work

for Kiss to do

Les Kiss has been freed up to work solely on attack this November, but despite having greater possession and territory, the Irish side never looked like crossing the Boks' line.

Ireland have always done well off first-phase ball, but needed patience against the 'Boks who presented a wall of giants every time the hosts attacked.

Kiss will be disappointed by the way his attack lost its shape after two or three phases, with players starting to go it alone.

At times Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan would look up and see very few clusters of support, nothing resembling a backline, and had to give the ball to a lone forward, who was turned over. A frustrating sight.

The balance of power remains

June and November offer the public a window into the world of rugby and, while Ireland, Wales and Scotland suffered defeats, France's annihilation of Australia offers hope to the northern hemisphere sides.

The stricken Wallabies -- who drew against New Zealand last time out -- face a daunting trip to Twickenham next, while France host Argentina on Friday night in an increasingly tasty looking encounter.

Irish Independent

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