Saturday 24 March 2018

Crazy to cast Murphy adrift over old lapse

The decision to omit Geordan Murphy from the match-day 22 is baffling and could spell the end of his international career
The decision to omit Geordan Murphy from the match-day 22 is baffling and could spell the end of his international career

TWO matches in and it's been a dismal World Cup for Ireland thus far. A group who travelled as potential dark horses, with the minimum expectation that they would progress further in the competition than the previous five Irish World Cup squads, are currently struggling to hit any sort of meaningful form.

For whatever reason, a team we know is capable of mixing it with the best are fighting for their very survival.

Even allowing for the apparent narrowing in standards between the haves and have-nots of world rugby, it is disconcerting to see their individual and collective confidence evaporating before the eyes of the watching world.

A potentially very good team hasn't become a very ordinary one on the back of three indifferent performances, but there is no denying that the same nucleus of players who have amassed three Triple Crowns in four years as well as beating three of the four Southern Hemisphere giants are currently close to being devoid of confidence.

We are now at the stage where we must shape up or ship out. Our World Cup fate was always going to be determined on the back of the must-win matches against the host nation and Argentina. In that respect, the situation is no different now than when the draw was made two years ago.

However, there are huge question marks over central tenets to our game, not least the ability of the tight five to front up physically and the lack of a genuine open-side wing forward to support Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and the other outside backs in competing for possession at the breakdown. Firing on all cylinders,our midfield duo often obliterate the need for a specialist roving number seven but when not -- as is now the case -- the absence is glaring.

Bearing in mind the fluid game Eddie O'Sullivan wants his side to play, the decision to travel without a genuine openside (even in reserve) is baffling.

And another more recent worry -- which was highlighted throughout Saturday's great Georgian escape -- has been the poor quality of Irish kicking out of hand. It is something we have long taken for granted, chiefly through the excellence of Ronan O'Gara, but we are now way short in this department.

Against the Georgians, O'Gara and almost every other back was guilty of kicking aimlessly to the opposition who gobbled it up and seldom gave it back.

Friday's Stade de France showdown is about who does the basics best. Like Ireland, the French are low on form and confidence, even despite their facile win over Namibia.

Strange though it may seem, I saw little in the thirteen-try rout of fourteen-man Namibia to convince me that this French team have suddenly found their way. They, like us, were sloppy in the basics, too often forcing the pass, while also displaying a fair degree of selfishness in overplaying the ball. They can up the tempo and mix in the maziest of running lines, but so too can Ireland.

France will start red hot favourites and rightly so given the force of the nation behind them, but don't rule out an Irish backlash just yet.

The competition began with talk of Ireland making it to the World Cup final, but O'Driscoll and Co now find themselves in a position where every game is akin to a World Cup final. Effectively, one defeat and we're out.

We are entering no excuse, no second chance territory. The French scrum looked awesome against the Pumas and Namibians, but provided the Irish set-piece stands firm we are at least in with a shout.

In a warped sort of way, the physicality and closeness of the Georgia match may benefit Ireland more than France's runaway rout of hapless Namibians.

On the plus side for Bernard Laporte, there were big statements made by the incomparable Sabastien Chabal and eventually from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Freddie Michalak at half-back. Whether to risk Michalak -- ahead of the younger but more structured Lionel Beauxis -- where to play Chabal and who to play at full-back will be at the heart of Laporte's deliberations. In Yannick Jauzion, Aurelien Rougerie and Cedric Heymans he possesses three of the game's best outside attacking backs.

As for Eddie O'Sullivan? Clearly he has reacted to the anticipated threat posed by the French back three by getting his psychological retaliation in first. It is a mindset I don't share, but either way the Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan, Andrew Trimble combination is based primarily on the defensive traits each brings to the cause.

Given an outside quartet of Heymans, Rougerie, Vincent Clerc and Cristophe Dominici from which to pick, the French coach is spoilt for choice down the flanks, hence the recent experiment with Heymans in the last line.

While one can buy the thinking where Trimble's selection is concerned, the absence of Geordan Murphy from the match day squad baffles me. There can be nothing more demoralising than being dropped from the bench and having experienced it once in my career immediately prior to the '87 World Cup, can I suggest we may well have seen the last of the gifted Leicester man at this level.

Certainly, I know that's how I felt following my temporary demise in early '87, before the intervention of Syd Millar, the then World Cup team manager, saw me reinstated and back on board.

If Murphy is feeling betrayed and pretty much alone right now, all I can say is it is fully understandable and I pity him in his plight. He is sure paying some price for the sins of Croke Park back in February against France. Irrespective of what happened when he mucked up in letting Raphael Ibanez through at the Nally Corner, not having him in the match 22 smacks of extreme blinkered vision.

This should have been his moment of redemption, his chance to make amends for the defensive error that cost his team dear. He would definitely have been in my starting line-up.

While the Trimble rationale I can understand, the decision to omit Murphy altogether is illogical. Gavin Duffy is a good all-round utility back, but Murphy is our proven best out-and-out attacking back.

To leave him off the bench by choice is at best bizarre and at worst potential player destruction. Apart from Murphy, also gone from the Croke Park starting fifteen are Rory Best (injury), Isaac Boss and Denis Hickie. Peter Stringer missed that game through injury, but like Hickie is paying the price for two indifferent World Cup performances. The decision to opt for Eoin Reddan ahead of Boss has caught many by surprise, but it is a brave and sensible decision which I fully endorse.

Reddan is a sweet passing, slick breaking scrum-half -- somewhere between Stringer and Boss in each key aspect. He represents a good bet in my book. Wasps' team mate Ibanez will give the rest of the French squad the low down, but O'Sullivan's decision is both bold and imaginative.

With Hickie, Stringer and Murphy losing out, three more of the tournament 'extras' -- Reddan, Duffy and third-choice hooker Frankie Sheahan -- enter the mix.

It is the Munster forward unit plus Simon Easterby, with Reddan in the pivotal scrum-half slot, who face the job of turning our faltering World Cup around.

Aside from the glaring omission of Murphy, the team looks well-equipped for the physical French onslaught.

The comfort zone has been breached and the job now is to search out a result. Forget performances, winning is all that matters from here on in.

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