Ireland look dazed and confused
Was it only a few short months ago we dared to dream the impossible World Cup dream? Well, scrap that. Fanciful notions of a route into the business end of the tournament have long since been dispelled, not just by Ireland’s own lethargy during this series of warm-ups, but even more so by Australia’s ominous resurgence. In their place, we welcome back the old familiar foreboding that generally accompanies a trip to New Zealand.
On the evidence of the last month (played four, lost four) beating Australia to top our pool is now nothing more than a pipe dream. The Tri-Nations champions are back with a bang, capable of beating the mighty All Blacks and genuine contenders for a third title. We can’t even beat Scotland. Scotland! A place in the quarter-finals looks to be the limit of our capabilities. Same as it always was, then.
Today’s final outing (20-9 to the old enemey, in case you missed it) before the long journey south laid bare Ireland’s prospects. An unremarkable England team were made to look comfortable as Ireland turned in another misshapen and error-strewn performance. Sure, Manu Tuilagi brings something different to the party, and he took his try superbly, but for all their grunt and grizzle Martin Johnson’s side are some distance away from being world beaters.
Unfortunately, so are Ireland.
Again, a lack of cutting edge crippled the side. Apart from one Andrew Trimble linebreak, whereupon the winger chose to ignore a four-on-one overlap, it is difficult to recall Ireland getting in behind the English defence. With Tuilagi a callow, at best, defender that does not bode well for tougher tests assuredly lie ahead.
Confidence is clearly at a low ebb and the jitters that affected one or two of the squad have spread like disease throughout the side. Right from the outset, when Donncha O’Callaghan and Jerry Flannery bungled the kick-off, mistake after mistake killed any hope of fluency. How Kidney rectifies that is anybody’s guess and the error count must infuriate the coach his backroom staff.
It is not as if the side are without ambition, but unfortunately the execution is sadly lacking. On five occasions Ronan O’Gara, presumably under the orders of his captain, eschewed relatively straightforward kicks at goal and went for the corner. And on five occasions Ireland came away with nothing. Nada. Zip.
An overthrow here, a dropped ball there and Ireland were back on the retreat. Even when Eoin Reddan, who did little to justify his elevation to first-choice number nine, took a quick tap in the shadow of the English posts he managed to telegraph his pass straight to the opposition.
Worryingly, it’s not just form that is taking its toll on this group of players. The injury count is also mounting. David Wallace’s World Cup ended when his knee buckled under a shuddering Tuilagi hit with the Munster number seven carted out of the stadium. It is desperately unlucky on the the veteran, who has been denied a World Cup swansong.
With Brian O’Driscoll and Seán O’Brien, Ireland’s captain and the current European player of the year, already nursing injuries of their own the loss of Wallace is a bitter pill to swallow. The sight of Jamie Heaslip being helped from the pitch and Cian Healy needing treatment did little to alleviate the gloom that descended on the Aviva Stadium.
Long before the final whistle, the punters were streaming out of the ground in search of a watering hole to shelter from the rain. Given the quality of rugby on display, from two distinctly average sides, it was hard to blame them.