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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 19, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Suffering scrum started slow slide to subjugation

    Liam Toland

    Where does a top-end athlete summon his energy? If you’re at home in Twickenham with new coaches and new faces then a scrum penalty try is a good place to start. I predicted about 15 scrums last Friday and hoped Ireland would negotiate the first five before match fatigue would even out the balance.

    There were 18 scrums in total and the penalty try on 58 minutes fired up the English, with bear hug embraces and energisers that coaches could only dream of. The score had been 12-9 and for all their dominance in the scrum this was a big seven points.

    It had the opposite effect on Ireland.

    Benchmarking can be a dangerous process but league tables do that automatically. Ireland came a respectable third, one ahead of France but any exploration of the actualities will tell you that in a very short space of time Wales have built a Grand Slam team while England in a ridiculously short space have built a culture all can be proud of. There is a cracking case study to be completed at PhD level in explaining how Harlequins and England can turn awful cultures so quickly.

    Last week I commented how “nice” it was to see Tomás O’Leary back but questioned Isaac Boss or Paul Marshall’s absence, hinting they’re in better form. In Marshall’s case he is full of top-end energy that could exploit tiring defences, a la Ben Youngs.

    It hasn’t been an easy few months for OLeary. That said he came on very early and tried to effect change but lacks the top-end matches and honed skills-set to do so.

    I searched for Tom Court as O’Leary carried the ball over his own line in a poorly-judged decision that would not have occurred in former times. What must have gone through Court’s mind as referee Nigel Owens indicated a five-metre scrum to England: ‘You caused the scrum you can go into tighthead; let’s swap’.

    Can one isolate the scrum in analysing the individual and the team? Clearly not as so much damage was inflicted on the Irish team. Physically, there was the exhaustion experienced by the secondrows as they tried to buttress their frontrow in position.

    “I may go down but I’ll never go back” springs to mind. I can’t recall our pack eking out recovery time between scrums. Dare I suggest the Six Nations affords just one spare prop so had Tom Court stayed down injured the scrum would have drifted to uncontested?

    Was this discussed in the stands as it’s an option? What difference Paul O’Connell (or a healthy Mike Ross) would have made behind Cian Healy we’ll never know.

    You can come back from a scrum onslaught like this where Ross has the brains and ability to educate his pack on the lessons learned. Apart from Leinster’s revival against Northampton in Cardiff it’s very unusual to experience that in real time. Obviously reducing the number of scrums was a first start, hence O’Leary’s extremely costly error.

    Apart from the obvious cheating option of uncontested scrums there is another “half cheat”: I’m very surprised the Irish didn’t pull the classic step back on the hit option. It’s been utilised for years where, under pressure, especially on your own line, all eight hit but immediately step back allowing the opposition to follow through on their hit, with the scrumhalf shouting “early hit, ref” and you get a cheap free kick, which is worth gold to the front five.

    Did the Ireland management discuss this and other options at half-time? Maybe that 28th-minute turnover wheel scrum success suggested the English were fatiguing.

    The physical was one aspect but the mental is altogether another. We have all been in situations where tremendous work has been done but then something horrible occurs and back into yet another scrum you go. That those horrible things were in the most part avoidable was deeply damaging: kicking out on the full, poor handling and poor utilisation of the back line at crucial times were bad enough, but 21 turnovers suffocated any chances.

    I had suggested Irish control over the breakdown would control the fixture. In many ways this proved correct as ruck after ruck, I counted the English speed of recycle. Four in a row oscillated from five seconds to 10 in what was a monumental breakdown performance by the Irish team.

    So much so the classic fall guy in these occasions was taken off on 48 minutes in an effort to speed up the game and turn their considerable scrum advantage into more points. Lee Dickson at scrumhalf was the villain and Youngs the hero, especially on scoring their second try.

    The real men were the Irish at the breakdown, with Seán O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Healy leading the way. Had Ireland not slowed the English flow to over five seconds on almost every ruck over the 80 minutes who knows what the score would have been? Hence a powerful work ethic in terrible conditions from the Irish which highlights the culture is there but the many weaknesses are unfortunately there too.

    Neither team lit the stage creatively and you would argue England had the much better opportunity but failed. I counted a grand total of three carries by Manusamoa Tuilagi where Gordon D’Arcy hit him side on and then front on but he did no damage and Ireland’s defensive system deserves credit.

    Much of the Irish backline attack struggled to fix the English and precious few opportunities arrived to Keith Earls, who clearly had the pace and feet to evade the monsters in midfield on 66 minutes.

    From the breakdown, O’Leary ran sideways before kicking for the corner to the chasing Jamie Heaslip; a poor decision and execution. Heaslip spent much time on the flanks. I’m not sure it is a team tactic but he has been struggling to get into the games and hanging around the wings takes him further away.

    The substitutions highlight Declan Kidney’s approach. Both O’Leary and Ronan O’Gara came on very early, and justifiably so. Both have been significant players in Kidney’s career and he trusts them. That clearly can’t be said of Fergus McFadden, a centre employed on the wing when the first-choice outhalf moves into centre, nor of Seán Cronin, given six minutes at the end of the most fatiguing fixture Rory Best is liable to experience.

    I fear we’ve seen the last of some great Irish players and the first of an English team with many becoming great.

    • I think it is time for a new coach. Preferably someone from outside Ireland and from the southern hemisphere.

      This team has not progressed since the 2009 Grand Slam. Declan Kidney is a fine coach for a limited game but does not suit the Irish team. The Grand Slam was no doubted aided by the interpretation of the laws at the time. A more complicated game does not suit Kidney which is why he struggled with his stint at Leinster.

      His innate conservatism, playing Gordan D’Arcy and Donncha O’Callaghan while the more superior and in form Fergus McFadden and Donnacha Ryan sat on the bench beggars belief. So too does the bizarre introduction of Tomas O’Leary at scrumhalf, a player who struggles to do the most basic aspects of the position – pass the ball properly.

      Stubbornly reducing Sean O’Brien to a shadow of his former self by playing him out of position is hardly inspired either.

      Playing the same old players constantly got found out on Saturday and is an outdated practice. If only for injury Ireland would never have used Mike Ross or Sean O’Brien.

      There were options available for the coach to try instead of Mike Ross. He could have given Hagan more time or he could simply have brought John Andress over from England. He did neither and the sooner he goes the faster Ireland will improve.

      As we saw during this Six Nations we don’t need O’Driscoll or O’Connell to win matches any more but we do need a coach.

    • Daragh Keran says:

      I think to suggest using what you call a ‘step back’ tactic is ridiculous. In scrummaging terms it is not what any team or front row do as a tactic of getting a cheap freekick, it is sometimes used to get the opposition front row off balance and enable your own front row to get into a superior body position and overall better scrummaging position than the oposition. No front row wants to go through the shame of having a completely inferior scrum and obvious cheating as you suggested is the last thing that will come into a proud front rowers head. Scrummaging is a thing of pride and I can guarentee the thumping they got on Saturday will be something they will never forget.

    • Ted Canty says:

      We desperately needed an eight-man scrum against England. What we got was a back-row which seemed to keep their heads in the air. Jamie Heaslip seems to concentrate on picking and running when his most important task should binding the scrum together. Doesn’t the coach tell him to get his priorities right?

    • Liam,

      Couple of quick questions :

      While tis admirable for the IRFU to try and keep its best 30 or so players in the provinces surely some players (regardless of position) could learrn more from playing in a different country?

      Also if a player does move abroad why is it assumed that it would automatically spell the end of his Ireland career? Given that practically every top level rugby match is shown live on tv now it would not be hard to keep track of players.

      Kidney has said we operate from a small base of players which is true. But are we doing enough to broaden it? Should we start using the granny rule and get players with Irish ancestry to come into the squad?

      Again tis admirable to have 30 Irish born players in our squad but since nearly every other country is playing fast and loose with their nationality rules surely tis an avenue that we should be exploring?


    • Kevin Stewart says:

      I agree that a new coach is needed. Kidney speaks in cliches and coaches in cliches. He is so conservative in his tactics and can’t seem to make his mind up which team he wants to field for any particular game. The driving force of the team have been O’Driscoll and O’Connell and without them he is all at sea. The sooner he goes the sooner the team will move on…

    • Andrew says:

      Agree with Ted eight will always out scrum five, if you are even thinking of lifting your head to see what happens next you are not scrummaging. If England even sense they might do you in the scrum the ball won’t be allowed to leave the scrum, so there won’t be even what’s next to look for. Anyway you can always look through the legs and see the ball, soon as you see a hand on the ball you go, much quicker then waiting and looking the other way.

    • Mark Symmons says:

      The capitulation of the U20′s scrum to their English counterparts last Friday shows how far behind we are, because of the depowering (one metre push only) of the scrum at schools and junior club levels. Currently Ireland and Scotland are the only countries who subscribe to this nonsense. While there are always exceptions, Props used to learn how to scrum at age 13 or 14, not 19 or 20! Reactivate the scrum at junior/schools level and at least you will have a generation who have been initiated!
      Persevering with the tactic of converting second row monsters (John Hayes, Tony Buckley) into makeshift tightheads has been a nonsense.

    • Brendan says:

      Too many players passed there “sell by date” .and please do not say we have not got the talent.

      The scrum as we know caused major issues and I would agree that the uncontested or step back were the only options.Strange that we did not look have the capacity even to collapse as our props were just lifted and pushed.At least when we had John Hayes 21 stones in there,that was always an additional option for us.

      Having payed in the fron row myself , my concern is that we do not have the mental toughness at front row.Where do we get a mind like Peter Clohessey,Ray McLaughlin or Sean Lynch.

    • Dean Flanagan says:

      Firstly, great work Liam. I don’t always agree with your points but they are always clearly and ojectively expressed and the technical aspect of your column is an antidote to certain others who stick to cliches, both in this and other publications.

      Secondly, this 6N was a success for us as Joseph pointed out in that Irish rugby is not all about PO’C and BO’D. People expect those players at 5 and 13, Heaslip at 8, D’Arcy at 12, etc. The ‘we’re only a small wee group’ excuse is rubbish. Yes, the quantity is small but the quality is high. We need to believe more in the players that compete regularly at provinical – and club – level to perform their jobs in a higher level of competition. Ben Spencer has been causing waves for Saracens after being spotted at club level and given a chance to compete. Other players birthright to their jersey under the current coach (Heaslip at 8, D’Arcy at 12) is counterproductive as they’ve become predictable and somewhat complacent. Players never improve unless they’re given the chance, and as pointed out above, when they take those chances, risk is rewarded. As pointed out above, that really has only happened for us because of injuries to key players (would Ryan have gotten a full 80 if PO’C hadn’t been injured?) and not because of progressive selection policies rewarding form and different skills (Wales team is full of young talent but nobody is assured of a start unless they’re producing).

      Finally, I agree with Joseph above in calling for Kidney to step aside. He is not objective enough, has no accountability to the public or press, and we have not improved as we have provicially. If Kidney had coached during Gatlands era and vice versa, whats to say Gatland wouldn’t have done a better job? Its only a hypothetical of course but in my opinion he would have done more with a more talented squad as he knows how to balance consistency of selection and risk. And how to push player closer to their potential. Apart from giving Ross his chance, has this coaching ticket done the same for any player in the set up?

    • Rob says:

      Completely agree with Dean.

      Kidney is conservative as are I am afraid Liam and other commentators. Mostly commentators “conspired” with Kidney and described his selections throughout the last few years as “trusting on reliable players” or on their “experience” etc. Even a great player has off days, if you are not in form you should not be picked. If you are thinking of widening your pool of players you need to pick other ones, even younger less-experienced perhaps not-as-good ones. If they get more game, who knows, they might actually improve. We still have a conservative mindset in many things in this country which can also be seen with Kidney’s modus operandi. You reap what you sow and Kidney’s failure to widen his pool of players came back to haunt him. When the chips were down and his two lieutenants were off the field he had no plan B. The fact that a 28 year old rugby player has made a breakthough onto the team (albeit deservedly so) is in itself a joke. He should have had way more caps at this stage. Cullen and Casey although highly regarded in England were constantly overlooked. Anyone who went abroad to play rugby and develop their skills was effectively overlooked apart from Bowe. Ridiculous, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s well broken now Mr. Kidney. And finally, as for the IRFU: Who offers a coach a new contract before the start of a world cup: Answer: The IRFU.

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