Saturday 24 March 2018

Tony Ward: Squad harmony key as Kidney ponders team for Bordeaux

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Far be it from me to defend that most selfish species, the rugby coach -- most are bold and brash enough to look after themselves -- but how anyone could be critical of what transpired at Murrayfield on Saturday is beyond me.

For all but the final few minutes of the opening game of the season, the Irish shadow line-up -- if it was even that -- went close to beating two-thirds of the Scottish first XV on their own patch.

But where are we going here? In all honesty, does it really matter whether we won 6-3 or lost 10-6? Who cares if the record books now show that on Saturday, August 6 2011, Scotland beat Ireland in a warm-up international in Edinburgh?

Of course those at the heart of it -- the Irish players and management -- will make the appropriate soundings for public consumption, but privately the bottom-line objective was very far removed from adding a 'W' to the ego card in Murrayfield.

The Scots had to win and in the end, courtesy of Joe Ansbro's 77th-minute try, they did. On balance, they just about deserved it. They monopolised the ball, but short of the occasional incision from Sean Lamont or Nikki Walker, they looked what they are -- an extremely limited attacking team behind the scrum.

In a sense, both head coaches got their way. Andy Robinson got the essential win his selection demanded, but Declan Kidney got the dogged performance embracing all 22 players, which almost amounted to an opening-day steal on the road.

It was a match short on quality, lacking precision and sharpness, but how could it be otherwise? The players beyond the international elite haven't even begun their pre-season friendlies, yet here we have two national teams pitching up with World Cup places on the line.

It is akin to drifting from bed to the starting line for a 100m sprint without the semblance of a warm-up.

To compare what we witnessed in Eden Park on Saturday morning, when the two top-ranked teams in world rugby met in a full-blown Tri-Nations Test, with the Edinburgh run-out is totally unfair. Of course there is no comparison. New Zealand and Australia were close to full strength and playing at full tilt.

They too are playing for World Cup places, but at the business end of their season. The southern hemisphere giants have a huge practical advantage in that key regard.

But we are where we are, with last Saturday's first of five warm-up games a key piece in our preparatory jigsaw. We learned little of earth-shattering consequence but still enough to deem the exercise worthwhile. One full-blooded match is more beneficial than a month's training.

We started slowly but eased our way into the match, with the second quarter our most productive. The five-minute spell leading up to Jonny Sexton's penalty and the first-half lead embraced the type of continuity to which we aspire and the prototype possession strategy this World Cup will demand.

For whatever reason, we lost our way after the break, with kicking out of hand becoming loose.

Here, comparison with the Tri-Nations stands. Give southern hemisphere sides cheap possession and you struggle to get it back without first paying a price on the scoreboard. Against the Kiwis it is proving even more costly, such is the quality and variation to Dan Carter's precision restarts.

The main concern for any coach is in unit combinations and how they go under pressure. The line-out was adequate, the scrum less so, but on this occasion the post-match analysis will centre on the individual rather than the unit.

In Kidney's own words, "to get 30 fellas up to match speed" is the objective. In a sense it is 'silly season' stuff but 'silly season' with a purpose.

The individual positives weren't exactly overflowing, but there were some encouraging signs. Chief in that regard was the physical involvement of Rob Kearney. The Leinster man is the full-back best equipped with the attributes required for New Zealand.

After that, in the hope Geordan Murphy comes good, it would be these two to travel, with Keith Earls providing emergency cover.

As with Conor Murray at scrum-half, to take Felix Jones in a restricted squad of 30 may be a risk too far. Jones will make it at this level, I have no doubt, but pool games in New Zealand are not the place to be feeling your way.

The Murray situation is becoming a little more complex for the simple reason that, despite the apparent glut of scrum-halves, there is not one imposing himself on the pivotal position. Tomas O'Leary is Kidney's first-choice, but right now -- though okay in Murrayfield -- he is far from the shoo-in the coach would like him to be.

Certainly, selection at No 9 and No 15 will make for some interesting deciphering in the four trial games ahead.

If, for example, Murray's opportunity is confined to the Connacht game on Thursday week and he replicates his Munster end-of-season form for what will essentially be the 'A' team, what then?

There are two schools of thought as to how Kidney should select his side for Bordeaux on Saturday.

Alan Quinlan suggested that he stick with the same nucleus of players from Edinburgh and keep his main squad for France and England in the final two games.

I'd take the alternative route -- give as many as possible of the rest a run this weekend and then reassess for the French return in Dublin seven days on. There is no fool-proof way but players, irrespective of age or experience (provided they are fit), quite simply need to play.

I should imagine that save for Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, Stephen Ferris and Ronan O'Gara, the rest are champing at the bit for selection and, for some, the opportunity to exorcise the Bordeaux ghost of '07.

Of the remainder on duty on Saturday, (despite one loose second-half kick) Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble appeared the most likely to make the cut.

The forwards were average, with Tony Buckley again disappointing overall. He must be so exasperating to coach, given the latent talent and pure brute strength we all know to be there.

Donnacha Ryan is in pole position to travel as back-five utility forward and little happened on Saturday to change that. There were Test debuts for Jones as well as a full 80 minutes for Mike McCarthy. That stat alone suggests some significant concern over Ferris.

The bench was emptied for the final quarter and, with no apparent injury, it made for a worthwhile if hardly electrifying experience all round. The selection to be announced on Thursday is an important one in two senses.

Firstly, that the Scottish game feeds into the French Test by way of continuity, thereby avoiding the second key point governing the disaster that was France '07 and that 'us and them' divide defined from very early on. Whatever else it for sure must be avoided.

Irish Independent

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