Friday 24 November 2017

This team's problems cut deep and could be terminal

Unmitigated disaster leaves World Cup mountain even higher, writes George Hook

This was an unmitigated disaster as a hapless Irish team lost to a South African team playing below its best. Victor Matfield won the man-of-the-match award but there probably was not one Irishman in a shortlist of six players.

Declan Kidney's losing run will probably end against Samoa but the coach faces more occasions like last night as his best players grow old and the replacements are callow.

The game could have been prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act and caveat emptor certainly would have applied to anybody that paid €100 to watch substandard rugby. Spectators were streaming out of the ground with 20 minutes to go and missed the late flourish that almost delivered a totally undeserved draw.

Any doubts about how out of touch the IRFU were with the deepening economic crisis last March when they established their ticketing policy was proven by swathes of empty seats in the Aviva Stadium. The union could not fill a new stadium for a game with the world champions. It was probably the worst attendance for a game against a major nation in two decades.

Ireland went into this match as overwhelming favourites, probably their strongest position since the Springboks first toured these islands in 1906. The worries for Ireland were not on their opponents' teamsheet but rather in the confines of the meteorological service. The prospects of rain and high winds was bad news for the inhabitants of Ireland's shoreline but South Africa and Morne Steyn would have been whetting their lips at the prospect of a kicking game.

All the discussion among the experts before the game focused on the new interpretation of the laws which would reduce kicking in the game and profit the side with the ball in hand and back threes willing to counter from the back. The early signs were that Ireland had not read the manual, as Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald kicked the ball aimlessly and the line-out count went comprehensively to the visitors in absolute contradiction of what you thought the Irish game plan might have been. In fact, Fitzgerald kicked every ball he received in that period.

It was not surprising therefore that in the first quarter the Boks went 10 points clear, given that they had owned the ball. It could have been worse but Nigel Owens seemed to be giving Ireland the benefit of every doubt.

The scrum looked a disaster even if the referee did not allow a fair contest. Tony Buckley as a tight-head never established a strong base even against an average scrummager like Tendai Mtawarira.

South Africa did not need to be inventive to embarrass Ireland. The visitors did little more than run straight and keep the ball in hand. Ireland were simply dreadful and seemed incapable of putting together the rudiments of continuity. The heavy rain was no excuse as, in the early part of the game when conditions were favourable, the home team were still incompetent.

Football teams, like organisations, fail not because of the shop floor workers but because of the management. Ireland were appallingly directed and seemed to have no conception that giving the line-out to their opponents was a recipe for disaster. Every Irish restart was kicked long, which allowed the opponents time to gather and kick the ball long, which Ireland obligingly returned to allow the counter-attack.

Even on the throw Rory Best had a nightmare and Ireland had no set-piece platform. The problem for Declan Kidney was that Sean Cronin was the bench option and his skills in that area were unlikely to bring any improvement.

The coach has 12 games to establish cohesion and discipline in his side. The mountain is getting ever higher as none of the heirs apparent have made a serious impact on the game.

Jonny Sexton may be talented but he has yet to prove he can control a tight game at international level. The coach must have been tempted to bring Ronan O'Gara on at half-time to kick for the corners but he may have decided that this a steep learning curve for the Leinster No 10.

Interestingly, the much-maligned Peter de Villiers had no problem giving a debut to Patrick Lambie over the metronomic kicking Steyn. The youngster promptly missed from point-blank range and allow Ireland a glimmer of hope. One wondered if the error-prone coach had committed another cardinal sin.

We had not long to worry as Gio Aplon sauntered through a transfixed Irish defence. Reddan, in a headless chase across field, ignored rule one of the defence manual and left a gaping hole. Fitzgerald might with profit look at the video and the one from Twickenham where good players like Aplon and Joe Rokococo consistently came inside to keep the ball alive.

The problems in this team are deep and could be terminal for a World Cup challenge. Cian Healy appeared to have learned little over the summer as to his lack of discipline; David Wallace is not only a spent force physically but does not have the attributes of the modern No 7; and the team as a whole clearly does not have the either the intent or the talent to take advantage of the freedom allowed by the new interpretations.

The last 10 minutes of excitement cannot disguise that this was a dreadful Irish display against a team coming off a wooden spoon in the Tri Nations and with a coach under pressure. Question will and should be asked about the management of this team. There is no need for a change in personnel but there certainly is a need for a change in coaching attitude.

November now looks like being a dark month and not just because of the clock going back. Argentina once again will determine the success of the winter expedition. Some things never change.

Sunday Independent

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