Monday 23 October 2017

The phoney war is over

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The days of talking up close Irish defeats are long gone from the national rugby psyche, given our success in the professional era. Moral victories are no longer part of our rugby vocabulary. So for the sake of those who believe that the result in Bordeaux mattered more than the performance, we'll tread sensitively.

Sure Declan Kidney made the appropriate post-match comments: "We lost the game and that's what we must look at."

Of course the head coach would have loved the win, but if he had been offered that second-half performance at the break, specifically the quality of the third quarter, he would have grabbed it with both hands, irrespective of the result.

I accept Kidney's gripe about coughing up relatively cheap possession, but it is overly simplistic for him to dismiss spilling first-half ball as recklessness on our part alone. You concede possession, much as you do penalties, to pressure from the opposition. So credit a first-half French performance fully in keeping with what we expected on a sultry Gallic night in rugby-daft Bordeaux.

Kidney is cute enough to play the media game, but he will be happy enough with Saturday's showing, and he will have learned plenty from it.

This was an immense step up from the week before in Murrayfield, before the pressure to produce results is ramped up.

Starting on Saturday in the return game with France at the Aviva, it should be a full-on selection with minimal experimentation in the quest for performance and a confidence-boosting result.

The phoney war is over, with the real build-up to New Zealand beginning now.

In many ways, Murrayfield (given the shadow Irish selection) and Bordeaux were pressure-free run-outs that were geared towards match fitness and completing numbers 28-30 in the travelling squad.

In both respects it's been a most constructive fortnight, with 33 players getting top-level game time.

As to the final few pieces in the travelling jigsaw, just which players are upping the ante as deadline day approaches?

Back in June in this column, we picked 30 names for the World Cup odyssey based on a 16/14 forwards/backs split (I now feel it will be 17/13 to the piano shifters over the piano players), but I was unsure over the fitness of Jerry Flannery and Geordan Murphy.

The latter is still a major doubt, and unless he plays this weekend, a second World Cup could well pass the gifted Kildare man by.

On the assumption Rob Kearney's groin injury is relatively superficial, he will travel in pole position and rightly so. Keith Earls can offer cover in an emergency but Felix Jones, however late his spurt, is clearly much more of a natural in the role.

So much will depend on how much Kidney values versatility. Luke Fitzgerald, like Earls, is capable of shifting to the last line, however uncomfortable his experience at No 15 was for him in the Six Nations.

I still feel Fitzgerald is much too talented to leave behind. If Kidney opts for Fitzgerald along with Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, then it may well come down to a straight call between Fergus McFadden and Paddy Wallace.

That being the case, all the signs point to Wallace being the head coach's preferred option. Like almost everybody else, I am unconvinced.

I could comprehend the 'third out-half' rationale, but given that he hasn't played at No 10 since God-knows-when for Ulster, it is a huge ask for him to step up to the pivot position at Test level should the need arise. Wallace is a creative playmaker but, much like Fitzgerald, his self-confidence is at a low ebb.

Circumstances

Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara (pragmatically outstanding in Bordeaux) will be the out-halves, and in the circumstances I would take my chances with just two.

Five into three won't go at scrum half, but despite what appears an abundance of riches, No 9 is (along with the fourth prop) our most troublesome and contentious area.

It would be wrong to go over the top about Conor Murray's international introduction on the hour in France but he looked comfortably at home at Test level.

Here Kidney has a dilemma. Tomas O'Leary is the nearest to an extra back-row defensively. Eoin Reddan is the best sniper and best equipped for a high-tempo game. Isaac Boss is arguably the best mid-match replacement to close a game out, with Peter Stringer by a distance the best passer.

Murray's arrival is late and there have to be concerns for the step-up but, on last weekend's restricted evidence, the case for his inclusion in the match-day squad this weekend is compelling. He may not start, but certainly in terms of sweeping passes, physical presence and sensible kicking he could well be the most complete option of the five.

Kidney has shown before that he is not afraid to back his gut feeling. Think of O'Leary's selection ahead of the then seemingly irreplaceable Stringer for Munster in a vital Heineken Cup quarter-final in Kingsholm some years ago.

The trick for Kidney is in balancing short-term gain with longer-term needs.

The big guns will be back on board for Saturday's French rematch. This will be a few notches up in intensity from the previous two games, but for the first time in the summer series the pressure is on Ireland to win.

Three defeats on the bounce (with England coming to Dublin seven days on), and the potential for self-doubt is clear. It is a place we dare not go.

We are in the final straight of 'must perform/must win territory' for the next six games at least. A winning performance on Saturday and Monday's squad announcement will look after itself.

The time for talking is now over. By deeds and results alone will Ireland be judged from here on in.

Irish Independent

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