Thursday 23 January 2020

Tony Ward: Sacking coach won’t alter the fact we don’t have enough quality players

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

When a team gives its all and still comes away empty-handed, it is difficult not to feel sympathy – even a twinge of optimism perhaps. Alas, exiting the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, I felt depressed.

Not because we lost, but because here we had the best group we could muster which, despite playing close to its maximum, still came a disappointing second to what even the most blinkered critic must recognise as a limited Springboks side.

What we witnessed on Saturday was two sides looking to play in very different ways. Ireland tried to inject a higher tempo, more fragmented strategy geared towards taking the game away from the fringe areas where South African rugby is traditionally strongest.

By contrast, the visitors looked to play close to source, pummelling anybody that got in the way but controlling the pace to fit the needs of big and physically strong men.

The only variation to that predictable plan of action would come through Jean de Villiers setting up field position a little wider perhaps but always within striking distance for the Springboks pack arriving in numbers.

For 40 minutes, Ireland succeeded in putting a spanner in the Springboks works through pressuring on or before the gain line and in the tackle and injecting pace through the occasional free-kick or cleaner-won ruck coming our way. It resulted in a nine-point half-time lead fully reflective of what had gone before.

Beyond that, save for the odd individual sortie, it was all downhill as, far from taking our foot off the pedal, the most physical rugby-playing forwards on the planet resorted to type, doing what they do best and sucking the life out of the Ireland challenge.

Therein lies the core of the issue – as of now we're just not good enough to compete with and beat RWC Band 1 nations. Yes, we will pull the odd rabbit out of the hat – that has always been the case – but when it comes to consistency we're not at the races.

Winning Pro12 leagues and even Heineken Cups does not translate as a matter of course into success at international level. It never did and never will.

Yes, we can criticise the coach and his assistants but unless the best players we have are fully fit, firing on all cylinders and available for selection, we will struggle against the better-resourced nations – always.

So where to from here? In truth it's hard to see too many positives. Yes there were individual plusses in the strong showings from Mike McCarthy, Richardt Strauss, Chris Henry, Donnacha Ryan (the epitome of honesty) and Simon Zebo at the very back.

Keith Earls too had his moments but without the ball you are chasing your tail and, after the interval, tail chasing was very much at the top of an unwanted Irish agenda.

At the end just four points separated the sides but in truth it was a chasm. While the world's best stranglers may not rattle up too many points themselves, they don't concede too many either. In 80 minutes we never really threatened a line break beyond a McCarthy or Strauss ball carry.

The All Blacks make it look such a simple game and, in Edinburgh on Sunday, the speed of release at presentation, the ability to offload in or behind the tackle plus the angles of support made for a quality and style of rugby about which we can only dream in our current plight.

So yes, if you must, sack the coach, sack his assistants, sack the players and, of course, all will be dandy. Sadly, rugby is now heading the way of soccer, fuelled by pitiful websites and the anonymous vitriol of cowards. Declan Kidney might not be everyone's cup of tea, but he is fundamentally a realist.

Of course I differ with his take on players, forcibly so from time to time, but 'sack the coach and all will be well with the world' is inane nonsense. We consistently punch above our weight, not in spite of committed indigenous coaches like Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan – but because of them.

It may not be the popular line but the problem is not with who runs the asylum, but with the quality of the inmates. To suggest South Africa losing as many as 15 front-line players compares in any way with our injury list is also abject nonsense.

Right now, with Saracens and Harlequins going well, it's in vogue to call for Mark McCall and Conor O'Shea to give us that quick fix. Back in May, when Edinburgh beat Toulouse, Michael Bradley was the answer to all our problems.


Where I would like to see sensible innovation, and I haven't a breeze if he's willing, would be in adding, for the most constructive attacking reasons, Joe Schmidt (on a part-time basis) to the current coaching ticket.

It may be the case that forwards win matches but backs can influence trends and, right now, albeit operating on minimal possession, we are bereft of accuracy, craft, guile and potency across the backline.

For the visit of Fiji, given where we're now at and with the equally uncompromising Pumas still to come, I would expect to see some of last weekend's units reselected for Limerick. That can be done but, equally, room can be created to give fringe players a run.

Specifically I am thinking of Iain Henderson on the flank, Paul Marshall at scrum-half and Craig Gilroy on the left wing. These players – plus a few more – represent the new and exciting breed that has taken Ulster rugby to the top of the provincial tree.

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