Well we’re back to square one. After the game against Argentina and the first half against Wales, it looked as if Ireland had turned a corner and were beginning to play to their potential. But the second half against Wales and the entire game against England brought us back to earth with a bang and the vista is no less appalling than it was at the end of the last six nations and the summer tour. The question is why.
Or should that be how? In the build up to the game, particularly after last year in Twickenham, we knew that the set piece – in particular the scrum – would be vital. Well we held our own at scrum-time and even managed to do a bit of damage on the English put in. After a shaky start we held our own at the lineout and broke even and ended up with a superior return to Englands. We also had an edge in the maul and our tackling stats were better than those of the opposition. Given that we had more possession and territory also, then how it all go wrong? Well its simple really. Rugby is a tough game, a tough hard game, and getting your hands on the ball against top quality opposition is bloody hard work, so when you make all those tackles, win those collisions, work hard at the set piece, then the last thing you want to do is give the ball straight back to the opposition. And yet, time after time, thats what we did.
We managed to do it in two distinct ways. There was a period during the first half when it seemed that the Irish players had dipped their hands in some kind of rugby ball repellant. Heaslip alone dropped the ball three times, and although he racked up the highest count, it wasn’t a solo act. When Brian O’Driscoll drops one, its a hint that it might be one of those days. That was unplanned though. The other ways we gave away possession were entirely of our own making. Both outhalfs kicked away ball after ball after ball. For some reason it was considered tactically wise to kick the ball to an English back three containing the two best full backs in the Aviva Premiership. The thinking was, presumably, to play the game in English territory and wait for them to make mistakes, either with the ball or of indiscipline. Its a negative tactic but it has succeeded in the past. However there were two problems with it on Sunday.
Firstly, Ireland were the ones making the mistakes, not England. Lancaster has instilled a clarity of purpose in this England team. Every player in the squad knows what his role in any given situation is, and they stick to it. They have a simple game plan, but one suited to the team meaning they rarely make mistakes. There have been more talented England teams over the last decade, but none since 2003 knows what its doing and why as well as this one does. The second problem is that under Lancaster the ill-disciplined rabble that often took the field under Johnson are a thing of the past. The Haskell binning aside, England gave away very few penalties in kickable positions. When Ireland kicked to them, they drove the ball upfield, though never becoming overextended which can lead to penalties as players get isolated when the numbers available to secure the ball dwindle, before kicking back to Ireland to let us make the mistakes and concede the penalties. The played the way we wanted to play, only better.
Apart from the team performance, very few Irish players can be happy on an individual level. The front 5 battled well, holding their own at scrum and line out, but Cian Healy will almost certainly be paying a visit to the beak this week for his use of the feet in a first half ruck. I was brought up with the ethos that if you’re on the wrong side you deserve what you get, but the Citing Commissioners frown on obvious rucking on the joints. An inch or two either way and Healy would have been fine, but his accuracy will be his downfall. Of the back row, only O’Brien can be happy with his performance. Heaslip, as has been already mentioned above, could not hold on to the ball and whilst he was the top Irish tackler, his effectiveness as a ball carrier was entirely negated by his slippery hands. O’Mahoney put in a mirror image performance of that of his captain, despite a couple of yardage grabbing carries, his work without the ball was reminiscent of Neil Francis in all his pomp. When you’re out tackled by Ronan O’Gara, its time to take a long hard look at yourself.
The half backs as a unit were mediocre at best. Murray box kicked well, always giving his runners a chance to win or at least contest the ball in the air. The presence of O’Gara is an inhibitor on him though. When he’s paired with his senior provincial team mate he takes too much ball on himself, perhaps realising that O’Gara doesn’t possess a running threat. His passing though has returned to the levels of his debut season, which is good to see. Both players who comprised the other half of this unit had games to forget. Johnny Sexton kicked too long too often, and whilst he was more successful in navigating his team into the opposition 22 than his replacement, it was negated by the error count outside him. O’Gara had a poor game. Since the tell in his pass was exposed in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi final, his game has become confined to his formerly undoubted prowess at kicking and simple one out passes. Some might uncharitably suggest that his game was never much more than that, but they’d be wrong. At the tail end of Kidneys first run as Munster coach and under Gaffney, one of Munsters primary moves off line out ball off the top (particularly between Munsters 22 and the 10 metre line) was for O’Gara to hit Mike Mullins at 13 with a hard flat skip pass that had enough length and velocity to take him outside his opposite number more often than not, and the running rugby played by Ireland under O’Sullivan, some of the most expansive ever played by an Irish team, owed much to his distribution skills at pivot. Those days are gone now, however, and his game has constricted in terms of ambition and effectiveness. 5 of his first 6 kicks from play found an English breadbasket without troubling the touch judges.
The bench had a significant role in this match also, either by what contributed, or by what wasn’t there to contribute in the first place. Zebo broke a bone in his foot early in the match, an injury that was like a bucket of cold water being poured over the crowd given the pre match buildup, and was replaced by Keith Earls, who, in his best position, put in an excellent performance. At outside centre he looks well out of his depth, but on the wing he’s a constant threat with his pace, step and power. Earls was a Lion in 2009, and on the wing you can see why. O’Gara also came on before half time, but after that the Irish bench had little to offer. Englands bench however was a different matter. Hartley, Wilson, Lawes/Waldrom and Tuilagi were all introduced all of whom are players with real international pedigree. Some may not be particularly likeable, but they know their way around a pitch at his level.
A number of the Irish players, including the captain, seemed somewhat overwrought by the occasion. The hype in the lead up to the game was huge. The irish media were billing this game as the grand slam decider, as if for either team overcoming France was but a formality, and the winners march to 6 Nations glory would be inevitable. For all that players talk about ignoring the media, its not always possible when despite a midnight sitting of the Dail to liquidate Anglo and talk of billions of euro being saved or not being saved, or whatever you’re having yourself, the game is still the dominant story of the week – such was the level of saturation coverage of this game.
Finally to the coach. Blues Talk has never hid its lack of confidence in the current incumbent, and Sunday has done little to change that. We had our 40 minutes of entertainment against Wales, more than enough for us, and against England it was back to kick, kick, and kick again – and if that doesn’t work, why not try kicking it. Theres not much more than can be said about Kidneys tactical prowess and selectorial skills that hasn’t already not been said by the Irish print media and their sycophantic colleagues in Montrose. But, despite losing on Sunday, and being the losingest Irish coach of the Millennium, should we beat an eminently beatable French team, expect his contract to be renewed to take him through the next Rugby World Cup.
I can hardly wait.
Don’t forget to tune in to Blues Talk TV on Thursday for a detailed review of the game and a look forward to Leinsters game against Treviso, which isn’t being shown on television because RTE spent all their money on chew toys for a rabid George Hook.