New methods of scoring tries required
Having forced myself to sit through the South Africa game for a second time, after a peaceful night’s sleep, a few more, eh, issues became apparent.
Ireland seemed mired between the way they used to play (it was a different sport in 2009) while striving to replicate how New Zealand and Australia have embraced the ball retention philosophy now essential under the new tackle interpretations.
The result was a string of disheartening handling errors or aimless kicking that indicated an absentee game-plan. But this team rarely start an international window with a top drawer performance. They almost seem to need a bad outing to focus the collective mind.
That it required the arrival of Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer, and an immediate increase in tempo, sees the pair rewarded with run on caps against Samoa.
This can be interpreted as a backward step but the wise old Cork halfbacks deserve their recall.
So does The Cappamore forklift John Hayes (for now anyway).
If O’Gara started last Saturday, the Springboks would have been ready for his trademark cross-field punt in Tommy Bowe’s direction. The kick pass is a long established O’Gara weapon and has yielded several iconic tries (Remember Cardiff in the Grand Slam match and Shane Horgan’s Gaelic football leap at Croke Park in 2007).
It caught out the inexperienced fullback Gio Aplon but the Springboks had long since checked out of a contest they were leading 23-9.
If the Samoans have done their homework, this well worn tactic won’t work again on Saturday thus forcing Ireland to come up with a new way of gathering tries.
Surely this team is capable of scoring off a patient build-up after clocking up multiple-phases, with patterns and running angles maintained, as opposed to the pick and drive white line fever we see so often?
The composure Australia showed to eventually break down the All Blacks in Hong Kong two weeks ago is the perfect example.
With this in mind, the most positive selection is Luke Fitzgerald getting an opportunity to prove he is a viable alternative at fullback to Rob Kearney or Geordan Murphy (honourable mention for Gavin Duffy, who seems incapable of a bad game these days).
Looking back at the Springbok disaster (let’s not fool ourselves: the final score was a testimony to a courageous late burst aided by Peter de Villiers’ misguided tactical substitutions), Fitzgerald was the most proactive Irish back until the wheels fell off with Juan Smith’s intercept try, quickly followed by the weather ruining any chance of an expansive approach.
Fitzgerald seemed to grasp the need to speed up Ireland’s counter attacking style. This Saturday he will be perfectly positioned to demand quick lineouts are fired in his direction by Bowe or Andrew Trimble.
His natural spatial awareness makes his run at fullback imperative, what with Kearney injured and Murphy on Leicester Tigers duty.
Presumably, he will be launched off Brian O’Driscoll’s shoulder at every opportunity. And not just from set moves.
This is not a call for Kearney to be dropped but should Fitzgerald show the value of offloading out of the tackle then Kearney will be forced to respond in a similar fashion.
Elsewhere, Ireland’s best three players at the moment – Jamie Heaslip, Bowe and O’Driscoll – are retained to ensure a measure of solidity as other, more problematic, positions are examined.
The best news this week is Paul O’Connell’s small steps towards fitness are continuing just as the leading candidate to eventually replace him in the long term gets his maiden cap.
Devin Toner, and Seán Cronin at hooker, must fix the mess that is the Irish lineout. These two represent the future so hopefully they can show us the years ahead will not be too bleak.
John Hayes’ return at the expense of Mike Ross can easily be seen as needless loyalty but we imagine Toner isn’t complaining. O’Connell freely admits his reputation as one of the best lineout jumpers in world rugby is largely due to Hayes’s lifting abilities.
Another pleasing selection is Seán O’Brien. The hard man from the midlands is set for a long and distinguished career in the Irish backrow. He has improved his handling skills in recent months (see the flip pass for O’Driscoll’s try against Munster), making him the natural heir to the number seven jersey when the 34-year-old David Wallace finally hangs up his boots.
Other interesting calls?
Paddy Wallace is a natural play-maker, armed with a wealth of experience, who can provide an ideal link between O’Gara and those out wide. Denis Leamy was once on the road to becoming one of the great Irish flankers. Injury derailed him. Here he comes again.
All this should be enough to keep the public interested, whether you watch matters from the sanctity of your living room, your local clubhouse (with an AIL game out the window) or maybe even the stadium itself!
How much are those tickets again?